Ah, ACC basketball season: really, it's the best time of the year, isn't it? Finally, it's here, and it starts against Boston College.
At the start of the year, I don't know if there was a single ACC team past UVA that intimidated me less than BC did. The Eagles were pretty average last year, saw a couple of offseason losses, and I was less than enthused by the hiring of Steve Donohue. After they fell to Yale in their second game of the season (at home, at that), I was feeling pretty vindicated.
Then BC rattled off victories over Texas A&M, Cal, Indiana, and Providence, interrupted only by a single, close loss to a good Wisconsin team on a neutral court. With four top-100 wins and only two losses, one of which looks fluky and the other of which was understandable, BC's looking like one of the few good surprises in the ACC. Maryland will get an up-close look at Donohue's squad right away: the Terrapins kick off their ACC season against BC on Sunday at 4:00 in the Comcast Center. And even though I overlooked them early, they're going to be a great test.
I don't want to say that Boston College plays a mid-major style under (former mid-major coach) Donohue, but they have slowed the pace down a lot. They have the second-slowest tempo in the conference, ahead of only Virginia, which is in stark contrast to Maryland's transition-based game, which is the third-fastest in the ACC. That's led to quite a few small scores - 68-46 against Cal, 65-55 against Wisconsin, 67-65 against Texas A&M - though, admittedly, they have run off three 70+ scores.
Making heavy use of "the great equalizer" - the three-pointer - doesn't really help the whole "not mid-major style" claim. They take a greater percentage of three-pointers than any high-major team except Michigan and are well ahead of Miami, the #2 team in the ACC. They also get nearly a third of their points from beyond-the-arc, with only sweet-shooting Duke getting more in the conference.
But don't let the low scoring totals or the reliance on the outside shot fool you: they're a very good offensive team, with an offensive efficiency checking in at #9 in the country. They don't turn the ball over and they shoot very well from everywhere on the floor, but most especially from behind-the-arc. That's thanks to their wealth of talented perimeter players, the most important of which is 6-3 junior guard Reggie Jackson, who is leading BC in points and assists, with an A/TO ratio of upwards of 2.0. He only averaged 12 points last year and was more promise than production, but he has fully taken the leap this season, upping his points/game total to 19. He's also shooting 47% from deep, and he takes a lot of shots from outside - he has upwards of 40 three-pointers attempted on the year already.
There's a pretty strong supporting cast around him, too. There's Joe Trapani, who's pretty well-known by now; a 6-8 senior and a face-up four, he's averaging 13 points and 6 boards a game. Trapani takes a lot of threes - nearly as many as Jackson, actually - and though he's been off this year (just shooting 27%), he traditionally knocks down around 35%. That, combined with his size, gives him a lot of versatility. That said, one of my qualms with Trapani has always been that he tends to play smaller than 6-8, and he hasn't done anything yet to change my mind in the few games I've seen.
If anybody's wondering, Corey Raji is still in Chestnut Hill, though he missed the past two games with a head injury. It's undetermined whether or not he'll be able to play Sunday. Raji, who still registers as a 9 on the annoyance level with his random awesome performances against Maryland (remember this game?), would be a pretty big loss for the Eagles. They've gone 2-0 in his absence, but he's their leading rebounder and yet another effective perimeter scorer, averaging 11 points per game. Thanks to the emergence of 6-6 freshman Danny Rubin (from Landon School in Bethesda, if you wondering), though, the loss might not be as big as it could've been. Rubin's a decent scorer (averaging 7 a game) and a better three-point shooter than Raji, even though he doesn't have Raji's rebounding presence or experience.
You'll notice I haven't mentioned big men. Everyone mentioned so far has been on the short side of 6-7 with the exception of Trapani, who, frankly, plays small. The big man duties fall rather heavily to Josh Southern, an inconsistent 6-10 senior. Southern is dangerous; he has the size (6-10, 250) to match Jordan Williams pound for pound (literally, that's the same size as Jordan) and has been around the block a few times. He's never seemed to put it all together, though, and never averaged more than 6 points and 5 boards a season. Through the better part of this year, it didn't look like he'd take any huge leap from that.
But he played the past two games against two decent opponents: against UMass, he had 16 points and 7 boards. Against Providence, 16 points and 9 boards. His combined shooting numbers: 12-13. So, yes, he's on a bit of a hot streak. If he's fully taken the leap, it'll be very interesting to watch Jordan try to battle with someone with just as much size as him who actually knows what they're doing.
Size (and, perhaps more accurately, rebounding) has been BC's big weakness all year. Statistically speaking, they're one of the worst rebounding teams in the ACC. Past Southern, there's very little depth in the front court (well, there's Trapani, but like I said: he hangs on the perimeter and plays small), and 6-8 Courtney Dunn was injured against Providence. Without Raji, they've been outrebounded in their past two games pretty heavily, both against mid-major-ish squads. Southern has a tendency to get in foul trouble, and if he's forced out of the game, Maryland can be expected to work the ball inside a lot.
If you read this and are a little worried, I'm not going to tell you that you shouldn't be. BC, for as much as I overlooked them, has really turned around under Donohue. They have a few very nice wins - remember, BC beat TAMU and Cal, TAMU and Cal beat Temple, and Temple...yeah - a legitimate star in Jackson, and an ability to hold onto the ball. If Southern is for real and Raji plays, this is going to be a very difficult matchup, especially if Maryland still hasn't learned how to close out on outside shooters.
That said, I hate making opponents out to be better than they really are. I don't know if I've done that here, but BC does lack size and rebounding, and they aren't going to stifle anyone defensively. The key here might be to get Southern in foul trouble to expose the Eagles' lack of inside shooting. And, as always, controlling the tempo will be key; BC doesn't run and forcing them out of their efficient halfcourt offense should result in a few unusual turnovers and keep them from finding a few dozen open threes.
I still see this as a game Maryland should win, but like I said, don't take this game for granted: BC is legit.