Men's Basketball

Notebook: Defense Improves, But Turnovers Doom BC in Final Minutes

As Lonnie Walker IV elevated to take the 3-pointer that would sink Boston College men’s basketball, fans got a close look at the primary reason the Eagles were about to fall to Miami: The man closing out on Walker IV was Luka Kraljevic.

That’s not a shot at Kraljevic—the freshman held his own against a dominant Hurricanes frontcourt in his nine minutes of playing time, and despite his putrid season-long efforts from the free-throw line Kraljevic went 1-of-2 from the line to give BC a two-point lead with 29 seconds remaining. Little more could’ve been asked of the young big man.

Here’s the thing: He never closes games.

The reason he was closing this one was because Ky Bowman picked up two offensive fouls in 30 seconds to foul out of the game, charging into Chris Lykes twice to earn an enforced seat on the bench after he struggled to break through Lykes’s press defense. Left to fend for itself, the Eagles’ defense came apart at the seams and, in the end, Walker IV exposed Kraljevic, nailing the game-winning 3-pointer—the finishing touches on a come-from-behind 79-78 victory.

All it took was six disastrous minutes to send BC’s 2018 playoff hopes down the drain.

Three Up:

1) BC’s Second-Half Defense

WIth 7:58 to go in the second half, the Eagles (16-13, 6-10 Atlantic Coast) had held the Hurricanes (20-8, 9-7) to a lowly 21.1 percent mark from the floor—4-of-19. Quite remarkable, especially considering how the much maligned BC perimeter defense has struggled this season, specifically down the stretch. The Eagles’ impressive effort limited Miami to just 28 percent from beyond the arc on the day, and those efforts are the primary reason BC had any say in the outcome of this matchup. It’s a heartening improvement, and now that the Eagles need to shift their focus to earning a birth in the NIT, that kind of defensive intensity needs to be brought to the floor in both of their remaining regular season games.

2) Jerome Robinson

It would have been reasonable to assume that Jerome Robinson, who sustained a left elbow injury during the Eagles’ loss to North Carolina State on Tuesday, would have a hard time living up to his stat line, especially after he finished a mere 4-of-20 in Raleigh. Yet the junior put any health concerns in the rear view mirror and proved that he’s still at the top of his game against Miami. He played 40 minutes, went 12-of-17 from the field, 2-of-5 from 3-point-land, 4-of-6 from the free throw line, notched four assists, and added three rebounds to his game-high 30-point game. The star shooting guard took plenty of heavily contested shots, frequently driving through the lane and finishing tough layups. He earned two and-ones and consistently fought through contact when attacking the lane, most notably when he slashed to the hoop and kissed a beautiful reverse layup off the glass, right around the three-minute mark. Robinson doesn’t seem to be slowing down anytime soon—by no means was this loss on him, regardless of the collapse. The real problem BC had was getting him the ball: Over the course of the Eagles’ downfall, Robinson did not take a single shot. Clearly, the Hurricanes keyed in on him down the stretch. BC head coach Jim Christian is going to have to be ready to counter this strategy for the rest of the season if the Eagles are to get back in the win column.

3) Nik Popovic

Yes, Nik Popovic went 0-of-2 from the line at the wire, even airballing one of his attempts, allowing Miami to stay in the game rather than securing a victory, but he shouldn’t shoulder all the blame—in fact, he’s a major reason why BC had the lead in the first place. The Bosnian sophomore scored 17 points on 7-of-10 shooting from the floor, adding three rebounds, two assists, and two steals to his totals. To succeed this season, BC has needed three reliable offensive options. Early on, those three were Robinson, Bowman, and Jordan Chatman. The last few weeks, as Chatman has struggled to find his shooting stroke, Popovic has gained a lot of confidence. When his hands don’t fail him, his pick and roll game is truly impressive. Often, teammates find him open down low, in large part due to the gravity Bowman and Robinson command of opposing defenses. Against the Hurricanes, Popovic only turned the ball over twice and limited his mistakes on the offensive end, giving BC a third lifeline for the majority of play.

Bonus: Turnovers

Giveaways are typically one of the categories BC struggles the most with—the Eagles are currently tied with University of Alabama at Birmingham for the 132nd-worst turnover margin in the country. On Saturday afternoon, they showed real improvement. BC averages 12.7 turnovers a game, but Saturday it coughed up the ball just eight times, four of which came in the final five minutes of regulation. The group has clearly started to wrap its head around ball security, and the Eagles were rewarded with a 24-13 edge in points off turnovers on the day. BC can build on this improvement, and by facilitating a turnover advantage rather than constantly fighting back from unforced mistakes, the Eagles will likely remain competitive the rest of the way.

Three Down:

1) Closing Time

As evidenced by doubling its turnover numbers in the last five minutes, blowing a 14-point lead in the last six, and its best player not getting a single shot up during the last three minutes of the game—a span in which BC did not log a single field goal—the Eagles looked completely lost. Bowman fouled out, committing two consecutive careless charges, Chatman struggled to move the ball up court under the pressure of Miami’s press defense, Popovic and Kraljevic went 1-of-4 from the line, and BC went from shooting 65 percent from the floor in the first half to a final percentage of 57. That’s excellent on its own merits, but the drop off between the halves ultimately cost the Eagles dearly. Beyond all that, their defense crumbled. After a rough start to the game, when BC surrendered 39 points on 52 percent shooting, the Eagles upped the intensity, especially on the glass, for most of the second period. Unfortunately, all that work went to waste when Miami strung together a 23-9 run to close the game and steal a win. It seems like every time BC leads a good opponent, the game ends in either a close win or a close loss. Crunch time is obviously still a work in progress.

2) Rebounds

BC got pulverized on the boards in the first half. Miami held a 20-9 edge on the glass, securing more offensive rebounds than the Eagles had total rebounds—10 offensive to BC’s total of nine. Yes, Steffon Mitchell, the team’s best rebounder, took a seat with five minutes remaining in the half due to foul trouble, but the Eagles have to be better down low, even against a team like the Hurricanes that specifically tweaked its starting lineup to gain a size advantage in the paint. Miami only held a 26-20 advantage in regard to points in the paint at halftime and only ended up with a 42-38 points edge when the final horn sounded, but that was enough to be the difference in the game. BC can’t afford to completely give away a statistical category to an opponent. After all, it only runs seven deep in terms of talent Christian is willing to play—the Eagles can’t bridge that gap purely on talent.

3) 3-Point Shooting

After earning a reputation of being lethal from downtown early in the year, BC has really cooled off from beyond the arc. Today, the Eagles went just 4-of-17 from 3-point land, good for paltry 24 percent from deep. Given what an excellent shooting night BC had, the poor 3-point numbers are concerning. The Eagles average eight made 3-pointers a night, and they only made four against Miami. They went 1-of-9 from long range in the second half. Chatman went 2-of-8 on the day, Robinson only launched five attempts, and Bowman went 0-for-2. That last stat is pretty alarming, sine Bowman isn’t considered all that conservative in his shot selection, and although the sophomore looked great driving to the hoop and had an excellent two-way game against the Hurricanes, perhaps he needs to up his game from the outside if BC is going to make any waves in the ACC Tournament.

Bonus: The Charity Stripe Receives No Donations

The Eagles have gone a combined 18-of-37 from the free throw line in their last two loss—that’s real bad. BC has now dropped to 72 percent from the line on the season. What’s even crazier is that, just a week ago, the team was the ACC’s best free throw shooting unit in league play. The Eagles have chosen a really bad time to lose their shooting stroke, and considering the improvement they had shown in that department prior to this week on the season, it should be a situation that is relatively easy to improve upon in the practice gym. If BC is going to figure out its shooting woes out and stop giving away free points, it’s either now or never.

Featured Image by Pedro Portal / Miami Herald via AP

February 25, 2018