Sports, Men's Basketball, Column

Christian’s Coaching Flaws on Full Display in His Fifth Year at BC

Boston College men’s basketball is seeing its season slip away in front of its own eyes. Saturday’s contest against Syracuse marked the Eagles’ fourth straight loss, and they have now won just two of their last 11 games. What started out as a promising campaign has quickly transformed into a lost season. BC earned nine wins in the non-conference slate, including victories over quality teams—Minnesota, Loyola Chicago, and DePaul—but it also gave away several winnable games, dropping close decisions to IUPUI, Providence, and Hartford.

But, when BC ventured into ACC competition, the wheels began to fall off. With a combination of injuries and being overmatched in terms of both talent and coaching, the Eagles have managed just two ACC wins. Some of these losses are excusable—Duke and Virginia are simply in a class of their own. On the other hand, the Eagles have blown several opportunities. BC dropped two games against a Notre Dame team that has arguably the thinnest rotation in the ACC. To make it worse, BC has suffered the same issues on the defensive end that have plagued head coach Jim Christian’s teams for years, as it has been unable to adapt to its opponents’ adjustments. This has resulted in botched leads against both Virginia Tech and Louisville.

Coaching is the ultimate source of the Eagles’ issues—and that’s where Christian comes in. With the Eagles greatly struggling, the fifth-year head coach finds himself on the hot seat, and for good reason. It took four years for Christian to achieve the 19-win season from last year, and it was a long and brutal road that featured the Eagles going winless in conference play during the 2015-16 season.

Yes, an important caveat is that injuries have been a major culprit for BC’s struggles. Ever since November, there have been numerous shifts in the starting lineup. Jordan Chatman and Steffon Mitchell each missed multiple games, then things got worse with the prolonged absence of Wynston Tabbs, who emerged as a bonafide star early in the season. After injuring his left knee against Hartford, the freshman was in and out of the lineup and has now missed five straight games. With Tabbs walking around on crutches and Christian mum on his status, there’s no telling when—or even if—the guard will make it back to the lineup.

That being said, these injuries have only caused BC to miss one or two players in the rotation at any given time. The Eagles have a better supporting cast than last season with Jared Hamilton, Chris Herren Jr., and Jairus Hamilton that they should have been able to replace the production missing in the starting lineup. Alas, BC has not accomplished that as it’s been quite tough and rare for the team to play a full 40 minutes.

With Jerome Robinson’s rise to prominence in 2017-18, BC garnered its first postseason appearance since the 2010-11 season and finished above .500. While the Eagles did let some winnable games slip away, they still defied preseason expectations by making a run in the conference tournament and appearing in the NIT. This year, even with Robinson departing for the NBA’s Los Angeles Clippers, many expected the team to take another step forward with Bowman returning as well as Jairus Hamilton—an ESPN Top 100 recruit—and Tabbs arriving as new talent.

Unfortunately for the Eagles, they never reached the next level. In fact, BC has taken a colossal step back.   

One of the issues has been Christian’s inability to develop talent on the bench. The reason the Eagles have a startlingly thin rotation is because the team has nobody to turn to. BC has had to rely on a small rotation of players—a group that’s grown even smaller because of injuries—while letting numerous players ride the bench and gain very little playing time. Christian has been unable to get the most out his players. Luka Kraljevic averaged 1.5 points per game last season and has seen even less playing time this year, only averaging 0.8 points per game.

Jairus Hamilton came in as a four-star recruit with plenty of hype, but Christian has struggled to find ways to use the freshman. Compare Hamilton with Daniel Oturu, the freshman at Minnesota who was ranked only one slot higher than Hamilton. Oturu is currently averaging 10.8 points per game on 57.3 percent shooting, far better than Hamilton’s average of 5.0 points per game. A.J. Reeves, who was similarly ranked, has been a valuable contributor for Providence this season as the team’s second-leading scorer, and he even hit the tying 3-pointer to force overtime against BC back in November.

BC’s bench players have been sieves on the court, making mistakes and often posting negative efficiency ratings. Bowman is averaging 38.9 minutes per game this year because there’s no else behind him who can even replicate a fraction of his production. Christian has been riding Bowman harder than any other player in the country—the junior leads the nation in percentage of minutes played. He is one of the only players—besides Nik Popovic, Tabbs, and Chatman—that Christian can count on for consistent contributions.

Defense has always been a weak point under Christian. For years, the Eagles have proven incapable of defending the perimeter. This has allowed opponents to race ahead with the deep ball. Whether the Eagles employ a 2-3 zone or man-to-man, their strategy may work for a stretch, but teams are quick to adjust, and BC is unable to counter.

Defensive effort from many players has been spotty. Bowman is too busy doing everything on the court, and he sometimes cannot give a full effort—the guard often looks to double team rather than defend his man straight up. Tabbs has been a good defender, but he’s been inactive for a while now. Popovic struggles as an interior defender, and Chatman cannot be counted on to play quality defense. While Mitchell has a reputation as a dynamic defensive player and Jared Hamilton has impressed since gaining eligibility midseason, the rest of the team struggles mightily to stick to its assignments and maintain defensive structure. It’s no wonder why teams are able to score so easily against BC.

Christian’s coaching ability looks quite poor when compared with his ACC counterparts. It’s pretty telling that a decimated Notre Dame team swept the season series against the Eagles. Mike Brey, who was working with a roster that was even shallower than BC’s, still found a way to outplay the Eagles, outcoaching Christian on two separate occasions. In the second contest, Brey made it a point of emphasis to attack BC on the perimeter, and the Fighting Irish—the 279th-best 3-point shooting team in the country, per KenPom—succeeded, converting 50 percent of their triples.  

Perhaps an even bigger indictment of Christian’s coaching comes in the form of Jeff Capel, the head coach at Pittsburgh. After going winless in the ACC last year, the Panthers hired Capel, who brought in several freshman recruits who have impressed so far. Three of the four top scorers for Pittsburgh—Xavier Johnson, Trey McGowens, and Au’Diese Toney—are freshmen. Capel, in his first year at the helm, is in the same position as Christian—who has been at BC for much longer—in the current ACC hierarchy.

Buzz Williams has achieved significantly more in five years than Christian has. Williams inherited a Virginia Tech team that won only two conference games during the 2013-14 season. After just one sub-.500 season, Williams has turned Virginia Tech into a perennial contender in the ACC, and the Hokies are currently ranked No. 11 in the nation. You can even look into the actual hiring of Christian, too, as former athletic director Brad Bates passed on Mike Hopkins—who is currently coaching Pac-12 leading Washington and finding much more success.

The future doesn’t look very bright for BC at the moment. Bowman, who is currently projected to be a late-second round pick in the NBA draft, will surely depart, and Chatman is no longer eligible after this season. Tabbs looked the part of a secondary star, but it remains to be seen if he can carry over that same level play to the ACC. Hamilton has impressed at times, but his development has been slower than expected. BC will welcome four three-star recruits next fall, but it’s too early to tell if they’ll be able to replace Bowman’s production.

Christian ultimately failed to capitalize in terms of recruiting this year despite producing a lottery pick in Robinson, boasting an NBA-caliber guard in Bowman, and notching an ESPN Top 100 recruit. A 2019-20 starting lineup that will likely consist of Wynston Tabbs, Jairus Hamilton, Popovic, Steffon Mitchell and one of the new recruits doesn’t inspire much confidence. If Christian is struggling to achieve production from his bench now, it’s highly unlikely he’ll be able to reverse course next year.

Christian hasn’t exactly had luck on his side, though. During the ill-fated 2015-16 season, half of the team was infected with norovirus after eating at Chipotle during the restaurant chain’s well-documented E. Coli outbreak. Last year, Teddy Hawkins—an Illinois State transfer and the Eagles’ most dynamic big man in recent memory—suffered a season-ending knee injury, just eight games into the season. Flash forward to 2018-19: BC’s recent matchup with Syracuse saw both Mitchell and Popovic leave with injuries. While Mitchell did return, Popovic remains in the concussion protocol. The game was simply a microcosm of a larger problem—the Eagles can’t seem to shake the injury bug.

What is the ceiling for BC? If the roster is firing on all cylinders, the Eagles could make some noise in the ACC—as they demonstrated in their upset of Florida State—but this team would likely peak at around 20 wins. That may be enough to make the NCAA Tournament, but even when they eclipsed that mark in 2010-11, they only earned an NIT berth, so nothing is guaranteed.

If Director of Athletics Martin Jarmond is content to let BC hang near the cellar in the ACC with the slight chance of a decent season, then keeping Christian is the right course of action. But if Jarmond wants to revive the days of yore when the Eagles made the NCAA Tournament seven times over the course of nine years, then it may just be time to go in a new direction. Jarmond has appeared to strike gold on his hires of Jason Kennedy and Joanna Bernabei-McNamee for volleyball and women’s basketball, respectively, so it’s clear that the third-year AD has a shrewd eye in picking head coaches. A new leader could perhaps elevate the Eagles to be a mid-tier ACC team with consistent postseason aspirations.    

Unless this team is somehow able to revitalize its play down the stretch—like the Eagles did last year when they made it to the quarterfinals of the ACC Tournament—Christian is out of excuses, and his fate is all but sealed.   

Featured Image by Michael Dwyer / AP Photo

February 11, 2019

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