Guards let up: Behind BC’s defensive struggles

Boston College lost its ACC opener to Maryland last night, 88-80, continuing an already-disappointing season. The Eagles are 3-7, and it’s not hard to figure out why — they’ve given up an astonishing 1.19 points per possession, worst among major-conference teams. BC’s offense has actually been great (18th nationally in Ken Pomeroy’s adjusted efficiency), but it gives up so many points at the other end that it doesn’t matter, as opponents have scored at least 75 points in all but one game.

In BC’s latest defensive fiasco, the Terps scored 88 points on just 67 possessions, shooting a blistering 67% on two-pointers and collecting 10 of their rare missed shots. The Eagles were nearly as efficient, with Olivier Hanlan’s 15 made free throws sparking an 80-point performance — but every time BC scored in the second half, Maryland guard Dez Wells had an answer, finishing with 33 points on 12-for-18 shooting. Wells’ plan wasn’t complicated; time after time in the second half, he simply beat his defender on the perimeter, got to the hoop and made a layup, often drawing a foul to boot.

“They said, ‘Now we’re just going to the hole.’ We should have been able to stop that and we didn’t do a great job, and we’re going to have to learn from it,” BC coach Steve Donahue said, per the Boston Globe.

Wells isn’t the only player to pad his scoring stats against the Eagles’ defense this season. Here’s a game log for the lead guard on each of BC’s 10 opponents this season, with their games against the Eagles highlighted in red: (“Lead guard” can be ambiguous, but for all teams, I used the guard who takes the highest percentage of his team’s shots.)

BC_defense_guards_ppg_Beanpot_HoopsThere are a couple of exceptions, but most opposing guards have had one of their best games of the season against BC. Wells’ outburst was the most extreme outburst to date, but C.J. Wilcox (30 points), Pablo Bertone (27) and Bryce Cotton (28) each torched the Eagles’ defense earlier in the year.

No one player is responsible for those totals. Especially with the new hand-check rules, it’s nearly impossible for any defender to stay in front of a quick point guard all game. But BC’s help defense has not been, well, helpful enough: The Terps drew a whopping five and-ones in the final seven minutes of Thursday’s game alone (four of which were earned by Wells). That total is something of a fluke, of course, but it speaks to a pattern of ineffective help defense. For the season, the Eagles have blocked only 5.8% of opponents’ shots at the rim, per — third-worst among power-conference teams.

That statistic alone isn’t damning; the two teams below the Eagles are Iowa State and Michigan, both of which have spent much of this season in the top 25. Here’s the difference: Only 16% of shots against the Cyclones have come at the rim, best in the nation; Michigan is third at 18%. Against BC? 44 percent of opponents’ shots have been layups or dunks, 304th in Division I.

In summary, the Eagles can’t stop opposing guards from getting to the rim, and they can’t block or disrupt shots once they get there. And it’s not like BC is making up for it in other areas; it is well below average in defensive rebounding and in forced turnovers. That’s how 1.19 points per possession happens.

The glass-half-full fan can find some reasons for optimism; namely, BC can’t really be this bad, can it? Last year’s team, with the same core players, gave up 1.05 points per possession (albeit against a different schedule). That’s still below average — but if the Eagles can improve from “Swiss cheese” to “below average” defensively, their elite offense should win several ACC games.

On the other hand, there’s no real hope that the Eagles will have a good defense anytime in the near future. Again, these same players were below average defensively last season, and they haven’t exactly improved so far this year. Plus, there’s no reason to expect Donahue to coach them into anything dramatically different — in 12 seasons of the Ken Pomeroy database, Donahue has never once had an above-average defensive team. Even his Cornell teams that stomped the Ivy League and reached a Sweet 16 won with offense.

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