Three-point shooting helped Steve Donahue’s Cornell reach the Sweet Sixteen in 2010 — and it might lead him and Boston College back to the Big Dance this year. (Photo via The Quad)
A distinct break in head coach Steve Donahue’s offensive philosophy can be traced back to the 2009-10 season. In the previous two years, Donahue’s Ivy League-winning Cornell teams had made over 40 percent of their three-pointers, but their offenses still looked inside as a first option: Their share of three-point attempts was only slightly higher than the national average. But in 2009-10, Donahue turned his shooters loose. Not only did the Big Red lead the country in three-point percentage, but 40 percent of their attempts came from beyond the arc, making their outside attack even deadlier — as Temple and Wisconsin discovered in the NCAA tournament, when Cornell splashed 17 threes to reach the Sweet 16.
Donahue moved to Boston College after that season, but he brought along his newfound love for the trey, as the Eagles have ranked in the top 50 in three-pointer to two-pointer ratio in each of Donahue’s first three seasons. And with a nearly intact returning core that includes several developing shooters, this could be the year that three-pointers send Donahue dancing again.
Lonnie Jackson, Olivier Hanlan, Patrick Heckmann and Joe Rahon each took more than 100 three-pointers last season, all making them at a rate above the national average of 34 percent. All four will be back this season, as will almost every other contributor to last season’s 16-17 squad. With so much continuity, an offense that was good last year should be even better this season — Ken Pomeroy and Dan Hanner each project the Eagles’ offense as a top-30 unit nationally.
The Eagles may get a lot of their scoring from outside, but that doesn’t mean they’re soft—they drew more free throws in league play than any other ACC team. Hanlan is much more than a three-point specialist — he was named to the conference all-freshman team after averaging 15.7 points per game, 3.8 of those from the line — and forward Ryan Anderson averaged 14.9 points and eight rebounds for the season.
Boston College was one of the nation’s ten youngest teams in 2012-13, with five sophomores and two freshmen leading BC in minutes played. That means most of the returning Eagles are young enough to add new skills, and a good place for that to happen would be on the defensive end, where BC allowed the second-most points per possession in league play. League opponents made more than 40 percent of three-pointers and 50 percent of twos against the Eagles, though the latter number might improve with a healthy full season of Dennis Clifford.
That defense will be tested early and often — starting with tonight’s game at rising Providence, the Eagles play an aggressive non-conference schedule that includes neutral-side dates with Massachusetts, Connecticut and VCU, and road games at Purdue and Harvard. For a team that could end up on the NCAA tournament bubble, every one of those games could count. “My feeling is that we can’t afford to be at BC, play a lot of average-to-mediocre teams, go 12-2, then have a triple-digit RPI and expect to win 13 games in this league. We’re going to have to somehow win big games in November, December, January and February, knowing that we’re going to lose a lot as well,” Donahue said at ACC media day.
The three-pointer is a fickle, high-variance beast; there will be days when the shots just don’t fall, such as BC’s home losses to mediocre New England teams in each of the last three years. But in the new ACC, the Eagles will also play seven games against teams in the preseason top 25 — and if they keep on shooting, they should pull a couple of upsets as well.
In a different universe, one in which TV revenues aren’t enough to entice schools to change conferences, Boston College might enter this year’s ACC as one of the top four or five teams, and maybe even a long-shot title contender. But with three basketball powers joining from the Big East, it will become much harder for anyone else to break into the top echelon of the ACC. (Of course, in that fantasy world without realignment, BC isn’t a member of the ACC to begin with, so it’s in no position to complain.) If the Eagles are as good as expected, they’ll be capable of winning a shootout against any conference opponent on any given night, but it’s hard to see them sticking with the top-tier teams over an 18-game season.
Duke is the preseason favorite, because that’s how the world works, where the Blue Devils will earn first-weekend NCAA tournament games in North Carolina until seemingly the end of time. Duke isn’t a perfect team, but it has an insane amount of wing talent, led by freshman and Player of the Year contender Jabari Parker. Syracuse and North Carolina are generally viewed as the top contenders, with Virginia and Notre Dame a tier below, but the gap between those four teams should be very small (unless P.J. Hariston and Leslie McDonald miss a lot of time for UNC).
The computer rankings have Pitt in the mix with those four teams, while most humans have them in middle-of-the-pack purgatory with Maryland and BC. Each of those teams should steal some games from the top contenders, if not necessarily Duke, but have a few more question marks.
I haven’t researched how many teams have gone first-to-worst in one season — especially in a 15-team conference — but it can’t be very many, and Miami might come uncomfortably close to that feat this season. It’s hard to know what to make of last year’s champions, since after having a historically old team last season, its roster is almost completely different for 2012-13. Last year’s preseason favorite, North Carolina State, faces a similar battle, while struggling programs like Wake Forest will struggle to escape the second division.
The chart below shows the percentage of returning possession minutes for each CAA team in 2013-14. Introduced (I think) by John Templon of Big Apple Buckets, returning possession minutes is a statistic that weights a team’s returning players by both the number of minutes they played and the number of possessions they used when on the court, representing the amount of continuity on its roster. Teams listed in order of 2013 finish.
The composite ACC prediction, including polls and rankings from all corners of the Internet:
- Duke, 150 pts (10 first-place rankings)
- UNC, 137
- Syracuse, 131
- Virginia, 123
- Notre Dame, 112
- Pittsburgh, 95
- Maryland, 91
- Boston College, 81
- Georgia Tech, 62
- Florida State, 60
- North Carolina State, 46
- Miami, 39
- Wake Forest, 36
- Clemson, 27
- Virginia Tech, 10
- Joe Harris, Virginia (6 votes)
- C.J. Fair, Syracuse (5)
- Jerian Grant, Notre Dame (5)
- Rodney Hood, Duke (4)
- Jabari Parker, Duke (4)
Player of the Year:
- C.J. Fair, Syracuse (2)
- Jabari Parker, Duke (2)
- Joe Harris, Virginia (2)
Rookie of the Year:
- Jabari Parker, Duke (5)
Rankings and/or All-league selections from: ACC Media Poll, CBS Sports, ESPN.com, Dan Hanner, Ken Pomeroy, Athlon Sports, Lindy’s Sports, College Sports Madness, College Chalk Talk, TeamRankings.com, College Basketball Talk