An Unstoppable Force Meets No Objection at Conte Forum

Posted by Matt Patton on December 14th, 2013

With seven minutes left in the game and his team down four points, Dez Wells took over the game. He scored 18 of Maryland‘s final 28 points, but that doesn’t do the performance justice. Every possession Maryland looked to run down the clock before he barreled into the lane, drawing six fouls before all was said and done. But Wells’ performance said as much about Boston College as it did about him.

Steve Donahue's team is struggling defensively, but better than its record. (Boston College Athletics)

Steve Donahue’s team is struggling defensively, but better than its record. (Boston College Athletics)

Boston College’s season has been bad. If you factor in the high expectations for the Eagles, who brought essentially everyone back from last year’s squad, it has been downright abysmal. Steve Donahue‘s team is 3-7, with one of those wins coming at home in overtime against a bad Sacred Heart team. Offensively, the team is very good. Defensively, it’s a train wreck. As Wells took over the game in Chestnut Hill, Boston College’s defensive lapses piled up. Every possession became a struggle. After the game Donahue cited his team’s youth, noting that players started focusing on their man instead of rotating to help — which is paramount against a score-first player like Wells.

But this game was a microcosm of Boston College under Steve Donahue. Statistically, he’s never had a good defensive team, at Cornell or at Boston College. His teams have never cracked the top half of Division I. But he’s never had a team as bad as this one either. Right now the Eagles are ranked 300 out of 351 teams in defensive efficiency according to Ken Pomeroy, the lowest of a major conference team by more than 25 spots. Watching Maryland for all but one stretch confirmed the metrics. This team did a poor job on rotations, often losing a man in the corner, or failing to step into Wells’ driving lane once he got past the initial defender.

But what makes for a good defensive coach? Certainly some are better than others (Leonard Hamilton and, historically speaking, Mike Krzyzewski). Hearing him talk, Donahue knows X’s and O’s backwards and forwards. It’s also clear he knows a lot about offense. His teams don’t generally gamble on the offensive boards, and they don’t get steals. But John Calipari’s teams rarely get steals but fare much better on defense. Part of it may be athleticism. There’s no denying lateral quickness is necessary to be an elite on-ball defender. But when Donahue took over at Boston College, the team’s offense improved dramatically (with Josh Southern replacing Rakim Sanders in the starting rotation) but the defense dipped by nearly as much as the offense improved. This implies there’s something Donahue needs to do better.

Hanlan and Anderson still make Boston College a dangerous team. (photo: Chuck Liddy / Raleigh News & Observer)

Hanlan and Anderson still make Boston College a dangerous team. (photo: Chuck Liddy / Raleigh News & Observer)

This year’s team has to figure out something on defense. And while the NCAA Tournament is out of reach barring a miraculous conference run, I think they’ll get better. Because many of this team’s struggles are bad breaks. This is the first time Boston College has dealt with real expectations of winning since Steve Donahue’s took over. And when they lost to Providence in overtime, I think it really hit the team hard. Then they ran into a buzz saw in Massachusetts (which is significantly better than people thought coming into this season). Suddenly the ACC dark horse was 0-2 and the effort started to slip on defense. Again, this was never meant to be a defensive juggernaut, but it’s also the same group of players who were 7.5 points per hundred possessions better defensively last season.

Steve Donahue has to find a way to get the fire back in his team, which will prove a difficult task with the NCAA Tournament looking out of reach. But conference play is a different game, and Boston College has a few winnable bouts along the way. Following should-be wins against University of the Sciences and Auburn (at home), the Eagles get a shot at Virginia Commonwealth December 28. That’s the game Donahue has to win to turn things around. The Big Dance may not be achievable this season, but he could lose this group entirely if things don’t take a turn for the better by that point.

mpatton (576 Posts)

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