Along with 340-some teams, Boston College men’s basketball is on the outside looking in, watching the Sweet Sixteen from home. More than a week ago, the Eagles were bounced in the first round—that is, the opening round of the NIT. For most ACC programs, a 19-win, sans-NCAA Tournament appearance campaign is seen as nothing more than a lost season. In Chestnut Hill, though, that’s far from the case.
Right from the get-go, the Eagles were on pace to put their past, most notably a putrid 16-48 record over the course of the previous two years, behind them. BC won five of its first six games and claimed two of its first four ACC contests, dethroning a top-ranked Duke team, effectively altering the perception of the program. Inconsistent, but competitive, BC finished the season with seven conference victories—more than the school logged in the last three years combined—and, more importantly, clinched its first winning season and postseason birth since 2010-11. The Eagles might not have earned a bid to the Big Dance, but they officially put the program back on the map.
Best Moment: Duke Upset
According to KenPom.com, BC has the 103rd-worst home-court advantage in all of college basketball. You would have never known on Dec. 9. Conte Forum was louder than it has been in years. Superfans flooded the student section, jumping up and down, as the Eagles went toe-to-toe with Duke—not only the No. 1 team in the country but an undefeated one at that. Broadcasted on ESPN, the ACC opener set the stage for one of BC’s biggest wins in program history. From start to finish, the Eagles gave head coach Mike Krzyzewski and Co. fits, in large part because they couldn’t miss from downtown. After shooting a combined 7-of-41 from 3-point land in its previous two games against Power Five teams, BC went off, recording a season-high 15 triples, including 11 in the first half alone. Fittingly, the Eagles’ top three scorers—Ky Bowman, Jerome Robinson, and Jordan Chatman—played like their careers were on the line.
The three guards—who accounted for 67 percent of the team’s scoring output this year—totaled 76 points on the night, marking the first time since 2007 that three BC players logged 20 or more points in the same game. With under a minute and a half remaining in regulation, the Eagles trailed by one. Ky Bowman dribbled up the floor, surveyed the court, faked the dribble-drive and kicked the ball out to Jerome Robinson behind the 3-point line. Without hesitation, the junior caught the ball and launched a 3-pointer over, who else but, Grayson Allen, rattling in the go-ahead basket. BC knocked down all eight of its free throws down the stretch, holding on for its first victory over Duke in eight years, snapping its 23-game losing streak against ranked opponents in the process. As soon as the buzzer sounded, security guards backed away and braced themselves for what was a 10-minute court storming. Alumni cheered from the stands, videotaping the pandemonium. Students swarmed the players on the hardwood, as Allen—black eye and all—Marvin Bagley III, Garry Trent Jr., and the rest of Duke’s star-studded cast veered toward the locker room. If the upset’s magnitude wasn’t clear enough, BC head coach Jim Christian settled any doubts in the postgame press conference.
“If you walk out into our hallway in our office, they have posters up of the greatest moments—all the big wins, the conference championships, beating No. 1 teams in the nation,” Christian said. “We’re putting one up for this one.”
Worst Moment: Hawkins’ Season-Ending Injury
Per usual, the Eagles didn’t lock down a single big-name recruit prior to the season. But they did make a splash in the transfer market. After starting a pair of graduate transfers in the frontcourt—Connar Tava and Mo Jeffers—in 2016-17, Christian, assistant coach Scott Spinelli, and the rest of the coaching staff targeted another graduate transfer big man this offseason: Teddy Hawkins. The Illinois State stretch four was exactly what BC was looking for—someone that could run the floor, create open space, and help Nik Popovic in the paint. One year removed from shooting 47 percent of the field—including 44.3 percent from deep—and leading the Redbirds in scoring and rebounding, en route to a 28-7 record and a near NCAA Tournament appearance, Hawkins committed to BC. Despite backing out later in the summer to field other options, the 6-foot-8 forward eventually re-committed. At 24 years old, Hawkins was gearing up for a fresh start and a chance to play in the ACC—an opportunity that withered away, less than a month into the season.
Non-contact injuries are the scary ones. BC missing Hawkins currently, he's one of just 3 in the ACC averaging a double-double + big leader. pic.twitter.com/TavMs8utaH
— Bradley Smart (@bradleysmart15) November 30, 2017
Twelve or so minutes into the first half of the Eagles’ ACC/Big Ten challenge game against Nebraska, the Dayton, Ohio native worked his way into the paint and attempted to go up for a shot. But before Hawkins could even release the ball, his right knee buckled, and the big man tumbled to the ground, simultaneously losing possession. The turnover was the least of BC’s concerns. Although Hawkins limped off the floor, he wasn’t checking in anytime soon. The next week, the graduate transfer was ruled out for the season. Just like that, the Eagles lost not only their leading rebounder—prior to the Nebraska game, one of only three ACC players to be averaging a double-double—but also their team leader. Before the season started, Christian was adamant that Hawkins, who was the only one on the roster that had any winning experience at the collegiate level, was the guy in charge. In no time, the graduate transfer was back out on the court, supporting his team, only now from the bench—always sporting a new suit or outfit—each and every game. All of a sudden, it appeared as if BC resembled its 2016-17 self: a thin team with two elite backcourt scorers and a depleted frontcourt.
Most Valuable Player: Jerome Robinson
Nowadays, Jerome Robinson—who has yet to announce whether or not he will return to the Heights for his senior year—is popping up inside the top 30 of several NBA Big Boards, in anticipation of the upcoming draft. Just a couple months ago, it wasn’t even clear if the combo guard was the best player on a BC team with zero ESPN 100 recruits. By the end of the 2016-17 season, Ky Bowman was recognized as the player of the future—the real NBA talent. Even though Robinson was practically unstoppable during non-conference play, Bowman and his red hair made a name for themselves down the stretch, recording a trio of 30-point performances and a bevy of highlight-reel plays against top-tier ACC opponents.
After a summer’s worth of rigorous training, Robinson reclaimed his title as the Eagles’ most valuable player this season, not because Bowman regressed—the sophomore point guard molted into one of the more complete players in the nation—but because Robinson was just that much better. This time around, the junior looked vulnerable in non-conference play, but when the calendar turned to December, he broke out. As far as league-only stats are concerned, Robinson led the conference in scoring, racking up 24.3 points per game—3.6 more than ACC Player of the Year Marvin Bagley III. The Raleigh, N.C. native really turned heads when he dropped a career-high 46 points—becoming the first ACC player to eclipse the 40-point mark in 2017-18—at Notre Dame back on Feb. 6. When all was said and done, Robinson finished with an impeccable statline: 20.7 points per game, 48.5 percent shooting (40.9 percent from 3-point territory), and 83 percent free throw shooting. The icing on the cake? Robinson willed the Eagles to their first winning season in seven years and their deepest conference tournament run since they joined the ACC in 2005-06.
Most Improved Player: Nik Popovic
Last year, Nik Popovic may have been 6-foot-10, but he sure looked like a freshman. First and foremost, the Bosnian big man struggled with foul trouble. Often replacing Mo Jeffers down low, Popovic picked up, on average, 2.4 personals per game in just 13.8 minutes of play. Even worse, he was noticeably deficient on the defensive side of the court, especially near the rim. Popovic had his moments—like tipping in the game-winning shot at Madison Square Garden before time expired to beat Auburn in the Under Armour Reunion Classic—but those were typically overshadowed by his in-game mental blowups.
Over the summer, the center matured both physically and mentally. Just watching offseason practices, it was clear that Popovic—thicker all around with a smile on his face—had changed. He was finally having fun playing college basketball and was forming lasting relationships with his teammates. The chemistry shined on the hardwood: Bowman and Popovic mastered the pick-and-roll, adding a new dimension to the Eagles’ offense—a unit that struggled in the half court set the season prior. Popovic had a knack for splitting the defense and utilizing his quickness to cut inside the paint. At times, he even hit a few baseline jumpers, not to mention a 3-pointer here and there. Above all else, the sophomore was disciplined. While Popovic’s defense was far from perfect, his self restraint was impressive. He was only called for 2.6 fouls per game—just 0.2 more than his freshman campaign—despite practically doubling his workload. After recording 20-plus minutes in just two games last year, Popovic logged 30 or more minutes 12 times this season. Toward the end of the season, he really came into his own. In fact, during BC’s three-game ACC Tournament run, Popovic posted 14.7 points per game, shooting 60.7 percent from the field.
Rookie of the Year: Steffon Mitchell
Steffon Mitchell was the 375th-ranked recruit in the Class of 2017. He wasn’t even rated a top-50 small forward. Aside from Wisconsin and BC, 6-foot-8 Shakopee, Minn. native was only really attracting interest from mid-major schools, according to 247sports. Eventually, Christian offered Mitchell a spot on the team, and the then-high school senior signed. But it wasn’t really until the forward arrived on campus that the fourth-year coach knew what he was getting. Mitchell’s versatility and basketball IQ wowed the coaching staff from the moment he entered Power Gym at the beginning of the offseason. Plain and simple, he could do it all: rebound, pass, set screens, and even put the ball on the floor.
Up until Hawkins went down with his season-ending knee injury, Mitchell served as the team’s sixth man of sorts, rotating in and out of the frontcourt. After tallying just two points in his career debut, he drilled a trio of 3-pointers and scored a season-high 21 points in the ensuing game against South Carolina State. From that point forward, opponents had to respect Mitchell’s game, both inside and out. While the scoring outburst was something of a tease—he didn’t eclipse the 20-point mark again—his effort was not. Day in and day out, Mitchell put his body on the line, diving for loose balls and fighting on both the offensive and defensive glass. In all but three of the games in which he appeared this season, the freshman led the team in either scoring, rebounding, assists, blocks, or steals. But, on the national scale, Mitchell made a name for himself crashing the boards. He hauled in a team-high 281 rebounds—including 100 on the offensive end of the court—ranking inside the ACC’s top 10 in that neck of the woods.
Top Three Plays of the Year
1) Bowman’s Behind-the-Back, Reverse Slam Dunk Vs. Wake Forest
Facing Wake Forest in the beginning of January, Bowman, despite playing the entire game, only mustered 11 points. That said, he was quite efficient, shooting 50 percent from the field, tallying three steals and a trio of assists, and recording double-double on the day. He made quick work of the Demon Deacons’ defense, especially on this play. Following a turnover, the sophomore sprinted up the floor, received a Robinson feed, evaded Brandon Childress with a behind-the-back dribble and then put the cherry on top with a reverse, two-handed dunk.
2) Robinson Lifts Off for One-Handed Jam in ACC Tournament Vs. N.C. State
Robinson might not have same finesse as Bowman, but he sure does have comparable, if not more tenacity. During the second half of the Eagles’ ACC Tournament second round game against North Carolina State, the junior hesitated near the top of the arc. Then, all of a sudden, he made a bee-line for hoop, bolting past Markell Johnson and winding up for a monster one-handed jam. Fittingly, as he’s wont to do, Robinson belted out a roar to the crowd and photographers following what would be a SportsCenter Top-10 play.
3) Bowman’s Crossover, Stepback 3-Pointer Vs. Dartmouth
On most days, Bowman can have his way with defenders—even more so in non-conference play. After falling to North Carolina by a season-worst 30 points, the electric guard took some of his anger out on Dartmouth’s Brendan Barry. Bowman slowly pushed the ball up the court, accelerated, then, as he approached the 3-point line, came to a screeching halt. Backpedaling like there was no tomorrow, Barry almost his balance. A Bowman crossover-stepback combo put the 6-foot-2 Ivy League guard to bed. To cap off the play, Bowman netted a 3-pointer, and BC’s bench went wild.
Achilles’ Heel: Perimeter Defense
The Eagles’ 3-point shooting declined as the season progressed, but their perimeter defense was never good in the first place. Without Hawkins inside and Johncarlos Reyes’ propensity to foul, Popovic was often tasked with manning the interior. But because the center is a below average rim protector, Christian was forced to compensate. Naturally, Robinson, Bowman, and Chatman had to dip their feet in the key to help their big man fend for himself in the paint. As a result, simple ball movement exposed the Eagles’ defensive scheme on the outside, time and time again. By either using the dribble-drive or just swinging the ball around the perimeter, opponents found the open man on the wing, leaving BC’s guards with no choice but to sprint to the corner of the court, flailing in desperate attempt to disrupt a wide-open 3-pointer.
Of course, like any team, the Eagles had their moments of brilliance. But at the end of the day, they allowed teams to shoot 36.1 percent from downtown—fifth-worst in the ACC and 239th in the country. The percentage is one thing, quantity is another: BC conceded 10 or more 3-pointers 15 times this season, spanning across the duration of the year. Even opponents like Colgate—a team that converted just 35.3 percent of its long-range shots in the Patriot League Championship—got the best of the Eagles. No matter how strong the they are offensively, they won’t find any kind of consistency with those kinds of lapses on the defensive end of the floor.
Now the attention turns to BC’s 2018-19 roster. There hasn’t been more optimism surrounding the team in the past decade. Yet with more coverage, comes more questions. Even though Hawkins played in less than 20 percent of the team’s games this season, it is unclear if he will be offered a redshirt—and if he is, if he even wants to take it. Of course, then there’s Robinson: Will he or will he not declare for the 2018 NBA Draft? Considering that he’s projected to go somewhere between the late first round and early second round, there’s a good chance that the ACC’s runner-up player of the year leaves for the association. Still, fans and analysts are only speculating at this point. One thing’s for sure—the Eagles have lined up their first ESPN 100 recruit in 12 years (Jairus Hamilton) and a three-star guard (Wynston Tabbs) to complement the backcourt. If everyone returns, BC’s ceiling will be pretty high. After this season, though, it’s clear that anything but an NCAA Tournament appearance will be considered a failure.
Featured Image by Keith Carroll / Heights Editor