Column, Men's Basketball

Men’s Basketball’s Early-Season Success Goes Beyond 2017-18

Before even reaching the halfway point of their ACC slate, Boston College men’s basketball fans have already checked off a variety of boxes on their bucket lists. They stormed the court after the Eagles upset Duke, BC’s third-straight win over a No. 1 team and first since 2014. They have seen their team rally from a 17-point deficit, as well as pull off a pair of 11-point comebacks. They have witnessed BC win in overtime at home. Heck, one student even made it onto SportsCenter after nailing a full-court putt during a game intermission. Now, all the buzz on campus seems to be about whether head coach Jim Christian can send the Eagles to the NCAA Tournament for the first time in nine years.

The Eagles are currently in the middle of the pack of the ACC, ahead of teams such as Notre Dame, Virginia Tech, Florida State, and Wake Forest—all programs that earned a bid to the big dance last season. BC’s three conference wins already exceed its ACC win total from the past two seasons combined. The infamous 2015 Eagles were known for a winless conference record, their players getting hospitalized after getting E. coli from Chipotle, and a viral press conference featuring distraught senior captain Dennis Clifford that summed up what was one of the most embarrassing years in program history.

Now those days are all but forgotten. National news outlets are starting to pay more and more attention to BC basketball, and—as proven by a raucous Conte Forum crowd last week against Florida State—so are the students.

What’s even more impressive than the team’s recent success is the way Christian has simultaneously set up the program for years to come. Beyond the fact that there are currently zero—yes, zero—seniors on the team, the biggest indicator that the Eagles are primed for a future tournament run is the recruitment of four-star forward Jairus Hamilton.

Just this year, we saw how another four-star prospect was able to revitalize a struggling program. It’s not a stretch to say that A.J. Dillon single handedly brought BC football back to a higher echelon of competition and that his run with the team has been integral in the recruiting game. At the same time, his individual dominance is keeping the Eagles’ best upperclassmen from declaring for the NFL draft. Without a doubt, star defensive end Zach Allen will see his own draft stock go up thanks to Dillon shining a spotlight on the team as a whole.

Hamilton will have a chance to do the same exact thing next year.

The Concord, N.C. native—who turned down offers from basketball powerhouses such as Kansas, West Virginia, Arizona, and California in order to play in Chestnut Hill—will be playing alongside Ky Bowman and Jerome Robinson, who are also from the Tar Heel State. The hometown connection should prove to be invaluable, as Hamilton’s presence could convince the dynamic backcourt duo to stick around Conte Forum in hopes of a tournament run in 2018-19, rather than making an early jump to the NBA. As a corollary to this benefit, Hamilton’s commitment extends the North Carolina pipeline for Christian. Snagging a top player from one of the best basketball regions on the east coast in each of the past three years speaks volumes of a school that competes in the same conference as North Carolina, North Carolina State, Duke, and Wake Forest. How the fourth-year coach and his staff manage to pull it off is a mystery, but the fact of the matter is that the more top players he can snatch from North Carolina and other southern states now, the easier it will be to persuade top-tier recruits in neighboring regions down the line.

The difference between Hamilton and the Bowman-Robinson duo is that Hamilton is a four-star, ESPN Top 100 recruit—the first for BC since former first-team All-American Craig Smith in 2002. During his time at BC, Smith became just the second Eagle to record 2,000 or more points and 1,000 or more rebounds and led his team to three-consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances from 2004-06. In 2005, he catalyzed a run of 20-straight wins to start the season, and in his final college game—which seems like a lifetime ago—Smith’s No. 4 Eagles nearly upset No. 1 Villanova, taking the game to overtime in the Sweet Sixteen. BC has not had as meaningful a postseason game since then.

Yes, Hamilton certainly has big shoes to fill, but what’s to say that the 6-foot-8 forward can’t meet expectations? The lefty is explosively athletic, can shoot from anywhere on the floor, and will have all the opportunity in the world on a team whose starting lineup has clearly been missing a true small forward ever since Teddy Hawkins went down with a season-ending knee injury—one that forced Steffon Mitchell into the four spot. At some point, Hamilton will take over at the three, and for a moment, let us assume that Ky Bowman becomes so in tune with his teammates that he decides to stay at BC for his junior and senior years. A starting lineup featuring Bowman, Hamilton, Steffon Mitchell, and Nik Popovic would run Conte Forum for two whole seasons, and that doesn’t even count the fact that Robinson and Jordan Chatman still have another year of their own on the court.

Christian has had trouble in the past in terms of retaining key members of his team, most recently losing Ty Graves, A.J. Turner, and Mike Sagay to the transfer market. During Christian’s four-year tenure, six of his recruits have decided to transfer away from the program. If Hamilton is convinced to stick around long enough, he could be the glue that will keep BC’s foundation of players in tact, allowing Christian to further develop a strong core of players.

Briefly returning to the present day, the simple reality is that the Eagles may make the tournament this year. Or they may not. Sunday’s loss in Louisville mirrored the highs and lows many fans can expect moving forward—BC was out of it for much of the second half, but willed its way back and made it close down the stretch. The Eagles showed that as good as they’ve looked at times, they still have plenty of work to do.

A tournament berth may be out of reach, but for what it’s worth, it appears they will likely make the NIT. That’s still a huge step in the right direction for a program that was the laughing stock of the ACC as recently as last year. In any case, this season has already proven to be successful. A win against Duke may be the most exciting accomplishment for one season, but what Christian accomplished in the recruiting game may have lasting repercussions for the remainder of his career as a head coach. In the not-too-distant future, BC will still be on the upswing, and the signing of Hamilton will be looked at as the turning point in the Jim Christian-era of Eagles basketball.

Featured Image by Melissa Rice / Heights Staff

January 24, 2018