Featured Column, Column, Men's Basketball

It Takes More Than Five to Create Winning Basketball

On Monday morning, there was a new household name in the sports world: Luke Maye. After Malik Monk tied the South Regional final with just 7.2 seconds to go, the once walk-on got his chance at eternal glory.

Theo Pinson drove the ball up the court, pushing by De’Aaron Fox. Isaiah Briscoe trailed Monk, but Maye was left open on the outside. For head coach John Calipari’s group, the sophomore bench player was probably an afterthought. After all, he only averaged a mere 5.8 points and 14.4 minutes this season. But to that point, Maye looked like a premier starter, recording 15 points—six of which came from beyond the arc—in 20 minutes of play.

Maye received the ball and immediately released from right inside the 3-point line. The ball dropped through the net with 0.3 seconds left on the clock, and the Tar Heels were all but guaranteed a trip to Glendale.

Just two days earlier, Florida guard Chris Chiozza enjoyed comparable fame. Despite averaging a bit over 20 minutes per game throughout the season, Chiozza found himself on the floor in overtime in the East Regional semifinal against Wisconsin. A pair of Nigel Hayes free throws gave the Badgers a two-point advantage with only four seconds remaining—exactly what the 6-foot guard needed.

Chiozza took the inbound pass and sped down the court. Once he reached the 3-point line, the junior leapt, lunged forward, and fired away. The ball went in and Madison Square Garden erupted. 

Come March, top-notch bench performances always seem to come out of nowhere. But in reality, the best teams carry the kind of guys who have been making an impact long before brackets are being made.

In fact, according to Kenpom.com, all but one of this year’s Final Four feature a group of reserves who account for at least 32 percent of the team’s minutes—a mark that betters the national average. 

Maye, Silas Melson, Maik Katsar, you name ’em. Getting through two and a half weeks of tournament play, let alone a 30-plus-game regular season is incredibly hard without a strong supporting cast. Especially when a team is trying to play into a system that requires depth.

And that’s where Boston College goes wrong.

Entering the 2016-17 season, head coach Jim Christian changed his offensive philosophy. With the loss of 7-foot-1 Dennis Clifford, the Eagles interior was severely depleted. The third-year coach turned to graduate transfers to head the frontcourt: Mo Jeffers (6-foot-9) at the five and Connar Tava (6-foot-6) at the four.

Christian attempted to counteract the size disadvantage with tempo. If you think about it, the transition must have been tempting. Ky Bowman, a former Division I-caliber wide receiver was slotted to run the point. Not to mention that Bowman had Jerome Robinson and A.J. Turner, who had already shown that they could stretch the court in their first year with the team, at his side.

The offense was molded like the high-octane UCLA and Kentucky teams of this year. Score on the break early and often. To a certain extent BC did just that. In terms of tempo rankings, it jumped 207 spots, rocketing to No. 46 in the nation. On average, an Eagles offensive possession lasted 16.1 seconds.

But for Bowman and Co., that might have been too fast.

BC turned the ball over 14.6 times per game this past season. While Christian’s group cut down on turnovers over the course of the season, a number of miscues persisted. It seems reasonable, but it is by no means inevitable. For instance, UCLA—the 19th-fastest team in the country—only coughed up three turnovers in its Sweet Sixteen victory over Cincinnati on March 19.

For the Eagles, typical miscues consisted of errant passes and lack of ball control. This could have simply derived from nothing more than fatigue. BC’s reserves only took the court for 28.1 percent of the team’s total minutes. Consequently, the usual starters, Bowman, Robinson, Turner, Tava, and Jeffers, had to carry the load—not only in terms of minutes, but scoring too.

Only 17.9 of the Eagles’ 72.5 points per game came from the bench. And if it wasn’t for Jordan Chatman, that number would be even smaller. The rest of the production rested on the shoulders of the starting five. Bowman and Robinson, alone, were responsible for 33 points per game.

There comes a point when scheduling takes a toll on every team. Multiple conference games each week mixed with lengthy road trips is a recipe for disaster. And it didn’t help that the Eagles were trying to reach mach-five speed on every possession.

Usually, teams rely on depth and role players to step up when they need them the most. Excluding Chatman and Nik Popovic’s occasional outbursts, BC could not call on anything of the sort.

The moment Robinson cracked the top-five in the ACC’s scoring ranks, and Bowman recorded his first 30-point game, fans expected the two to tack on 20 every time they suited up. And that simply wasn’t going to happen.

Even the nation’s best have off days. For instance, take Josh Jackson. The projected NBA lottery pick shot a dismal 3-of-8 from the field and tallied 10 points in Kansas’ Midwest Regional final loss. But at least for teams like the Jayhawks, there are other numbers to call. As far as BC was concerned, if Bowman and Robinson were struggling or gassed, the game was all but over.

One of the worst cases of this was the Eagles’ 71-54 loss to Virginia on Jan. 18. Both of the underclassmen guards failed to reach double digits. And although the bench mustered 22 points, it wasn’t nearly enough to make the game competitive.

The short-term effects of the run-and-gun offense can be just as costly. Several times this year, BC entered halftime with lead. But on five separate occasions, the Eagles let it slip. Right when Bowman and Robinson started to stutter from the field, all scoring came to a halt. And as its opponents continued to cut into its deficit, BC panicked.

Instead of taking time to develop a play or move the ball inside, the Eagles resorted to perimeter shots. Generally, BC proved efficient from deep, converting on 37.4 percent of its 3-point attempts. But like any team, it hit rough patches. And because its possessions were so short, it didn’t take long for the opposition to close the gap.

It’s easy to fall in love with a fast-paced, shooting team. Look around your local sports apparel store. Wherever you’re from, you’ll find that it’s littered with Stephen Curry or James Harden advertisements and clothing. As fans, we are glued to quick and electric scoring possessions. Quite honestly, it caters to our attention spans.

But what we tend to forget is that this kind of basketball fails more times than not. Three out of the top-five fastest scoring teams in the NBA (Brooklyn Nets, Phoenix Suns, and Philadelphia 76ers) are pretty much irrelevant at this point of the season. The same is true at the collegiate level. Savannah State, The Citadel, Marshall, BYU, and Central Michigan rounded out this year’s top-five. Seriously. I’ve never even heard of Savannah State.

This style of play only works for teams that have depth—the Golden States and Houstons of the world, or in college terms, the UCLAs and Kentuckys.  

Many have suggested that BC’s frontcourt should be Christian’s next priority. But a 7-footer won’t fix everything. As long as the Eagles boast one of the fastest offenses in the nation, there will be the need for a strong supporting cast. If they don’t fill that void, some unsung hero in March, like Maye or Chiozza, will, once again, remind BC of what it’s missing.

Featured Image by Brandon Dill / AP Photo

March 29, 2017