oston College men’s basketball turned the ball over 16 times and gave up 79 points in last year’s season-opening loss—not to a Power Five team, or even one from the Atlantic 10 or the American Conference, but to Nicholls State. One game into the Eagles’ 24th-easiest non-conference slate in the country, and it was clear that head coach Jim Christian’s team still didn’t have an identity.
“Well, we know who we want we to be. And I think we show at times, in stretches … It’s a process,” Christian told reporters following his team’s bounce back victory over Maryland Eastern Shore in the second game of the season.
Others thought so, too. One year removed from finishing 7-25, including a winless, 0-18 mark in the ACC, Christian’s team was slotted to bottom out the conference. In fact, BC received just 128 points in the ACC’s preseason media poll—600 less than the league average. To make matters worse, the Eagles lost two of their top-three leading scorers: Eli Carter and Dennis Clifford.
Christian needed someone to step up. For the first month of the season, that someone was Jerome Robinson.
The Raleigh, N.C. native emerged as one of the ACC’s premier scorers, lighting up the box score, night after night. Robinson, then a sophomore, put the team on his back, averaging close to 19 points per game. He recorded nine 20-point games before the new year, and, at one point, strung together four in a row. To put that in perspective, he had only scored 20 or more once his entire career prior to the start of the season.
But Robinson’s scoring spree wasn’t necessarily paying off. BC dropped five of its first nine. Christian knew better than anyone else that Robinson’s production alone wasn’t going to cut it. After all, the fourth-year man saw the same thing happen the previous two seasons. Even with Olivier Hanlan, Carter, and now Robinson leading the way, the Eagles hardly posed a threat to non-conference opponents. There was no reason to think that BC had any shot of snapping its year and a half-long ACC drought.
That was, until Ky Bowman started showing up on the stat sheet. Everything changed when the freshman point guard racked up a career-best 15 points in a thrilling win over Auburn in the Under Armour Reunion. Red hair and all, Bowman was on fire. When he wasn’t scoring, his shots often created opportunities for others on the floor. Bucket after bucket, he dribbled the ball up the court with more and more confidence. Aggressive as ever, and with the clock winding down, Bowman sprinted to the basket, trying to lay-in the game-winner. The ball rimmed out, but right into the hands of fellow classmate Nik Popovic, who sealed the deal with a tip-in.
From that game on, the rest was history. Bowman ousted Ty Graves at the point—and, essentially, from the school—becoming the heart and soul of the team.
Bowman teamed up Robinson to form one the best backcourts in the Power Five. By the season’s end, the two were combining for close to 35 points per game in conference play. The freshman phenom simply took over games, especially in conference play.
Scoring 30 points and drilling seven shots from 3-point land, Bowman single-handedly willed BC to victory over Syracuse. He just couldn’t miss. Contested or not, it seemed like every one of his shots were falling. The announcers were suspended in disbelief. Bowman was putting on of the best performances in Conte Forum history. He was locked in the entire game, but as the Eagles started to pull away, the freshman’s personality shined. After knocking down his sixth 3-pointer, Bowman backpedaled to the other side of the court with a subtle smile. BC was about to beat the reigning NCAA Tournament Midwest Regional Champions, and he was loving every second of it.
A week and a half later, he delivered another conference victory. Bowman outplayed Dennis Smith, Jr., chipping in 19 points and three more triples, taking down North Carolina State.
BC ended the season on a 14-game losing streak, but it could have just as easily won two or three more conference games. Thanks to Bowman, the Eagles were able to go toe-to-toe with most of the ACC heavyweights, including eventual national champion North Carolina.
So when the All-ACC Freshman went down with an awkward-looking knee injury in BC’s final game of the season—a first round ACC Tournament matchup against Wake Forest—you could hear a pin drop in the Barclays Center. Chatman, Robinson, and Tava crowded around Bowman, as he pounded his fist against the hardwood. As soon as he was helped off the court, many expected the Eagles to keel over. Once again, the only pure scorer on the court was Robinson.
But then something happened for the first time all season. The bench—a group that had only played 28.1 percent of the team’s total minutes, 262nd in the country—came into its own. Out of nowhere, Garland Owens pitched in eight points. Both backup centers, Popovic and Johncarlos Reyes, played harder in the paint than they had all season. And guys like Mike Sagay got involved too. Because of BC’s supporting cast, the Eagles held their own against the Demon Deacons.
Bowman and Robinson are projected to be two of the highest volume scorers in the country this season. But without solid contributions from the guys below them—Jordan Chatman, Popovic, Teddy Hawkins, Steffon Mitchell—the Eagles’ standing in the ACC won’t budge.
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ccording to Bowman, receiving his MRI results was one of the biggest reliefs in his entire life. What originally looked like an ACL tear, was actually just minor cartilage damage. The injury still required surgery, but within four weeks, Bowman was back in the gym, working on his craft.
In June, he joined Robinson, who was training in Santa Monica, Calif. at Integrity Hoops—an offseason personal development program for college, NBA G-League, and NBA players. Both of them relished the chance to play against professional-caliber players, in addition to furthering their already established chemistry.
Some say that the tandem of Bowman and Robinson is just as good as any in the country. Christian doesn’t see why his star players shouldn’t feel that way. As far as Hawkins is concerned, they’re two of the best he’s ever seen.
“[They’re] NBA prospects. I’ve watched a lot of basketball, I was on a team with the player of the year in our conference (Missouri Valley)—Paris Lee—and he’s a good player, I’m not taking anything from him,” the Illinois State graduate transfer said. “But those two guys, NBA potential—all the way.”
Hawkins isn’t too shabby either. The 6-foot-8 forward averaged 14 points and 6.5 rebounds per game last season, earning a spot on the Missouri Valley Conference Most-Improved Team. With the ability to knock down perimeter shots and back down in the post, Hawkins routinely stretches the floor.
Joining him at the forward position is Mitchell—a player that no one really knew about a few months ago. The freshman can do it all: rebound on both sides of the floor, shoot from the outside, pass, run the pick and roll, and drive to the hole.
“I think if you asked the guys on our team, ‘Which guy on our team takes the most pride in doing the little things to win,’ I think it’d be unanimous: Steff Mitchell,” Christian said.
Hawkins and Mitchell will provide substantial size at the three, and especially the four—a position that was anchored by 6-foot-6 Connar Tava a season ago.
Scoring-wise, BC’s offense—a unit that posted 72.5 points per game last year—should be in better shape than ever. Christian isn’t concerned about that. Turnovers are what he’s worried about. Last season, the Eagles had the 284th-highest turnover rate in the nation. BC gave the ball away nearly 15 times a game. Christian doesn’t use his team’s transition offense as an excuse either.
“We want to get shots, and we want to play the fast pace, but that doesn’t mean that everybody in press row should have their hands up, because they don’t know where the ball is coming,” he said.
Regardless of its turnover numbers, the offense wasn’t holding BC back. Its defense was.
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he Eagles gave up an average of 78.4 points per game last season. Even worse, their field goal defense was one of the worst in the nation—306th to be exact—as they allowed opponents to shoot 47 percent from the field.
Christian says that defense has been the point of emphasis, ever since last season. He believes that BC’s inability to stop opposing offenses wasn’t really a matter of X’s and O’s, rather that it was a byproduct of his players’ effort, or lack thereof, on the other end of the floor.
“Our players need to take a lot more ownership of [their defense],” Christian said. “I mean I hate to say that, but it’s not a schematic thing all the time.”
When the Eagles played their best on defense, it was only for a stretch of five minutes, maybe less, but not 40. Christian thinks that his players had the tendency to wear down toward the end of games—partially because of BC’s run-and-gun offense, and partially due to the fact that the Eagles were one of the youngest teams in the ACC. Their fatigue was evident, as BC blew five halftime leads—three of which came in the final seven games in the season.
The Eagles struggled to defend penetration. More often than not, BC’s opponents cashed in on wide-open scoring opportunities. Sometimes there’d be a hole in the interior, other times a guard would attack the paint, drawing Eagles off the perimeter, and then simply dish it out to the outside for the easy mid-range or 3-point shot. Christian has been addressing this issue throughout the offseason.
From time to time, Christian has players wear different color jerseys in practice. Each color is representative of that particular player. Shooters wear red, players that can drive and shoot don white, and those that only drive are in blue. Christian runs drills where he throws the ball in the play, and watches his defense make the necessary reads and switches, without giving up an open shot inside or behind the arc.
BC has to crash the boards, contest shots, and, most importantly, communicate.
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hen Hawkins first joined the team, he realized that almost no one was talking on the court. In his book, that only means one thing.
“A quiet gym is a scared gym,” Hawkins said.
From day one, he’s been trying to fix that. And he’s already seeing signs of growth, as players are starting to follow his lead. Despite being a fifth-year transfer, Hawkins is BC’s best leader. And Christian says that it’s not even close.
The Dayton, Ohio native is 24 years old, meaning that he is a whole seven years older than Vin Baker Jr. and Avery Wilson—the Eagles’ youngest players. His experiences, both on the court and outside the world of basketball are invaluable. Hawkins is coming off a 28-7 season that almost, and debatably should have, ended in a NCAA Tournament bid. He’s been part of great teams. Now he’s confident he can lead one.
“Just being on this team, I know we can do some special things if we just keep our heads locked in, take some criticism, and just keep fixing our mistakes,” Hawkins said.
That “if” will likely determine BC’s record this season. Last year, there were times when players, Bowman in particular, shut down. Christian got in his head, and he lost focus. And when that happened, the whole team came to a screeching halt.
Against Virginia, Bowman shot just 3-of-6 and turned the ball over four times. He only took one shot in the first 15 minutes of the game—a 3-pointer that was off the mark. The Cavaliers’ defense took him out of the game, and Bowman’s spirit plummeted. And so did his teammates’. UVA pulled away in the first half, mounting a 17-point lead. Players were sulking on the bench and on the court. It was a home game, but you’d never be able to tell. Bowman was no longer energized, and neither was the team. The Eagles only converted 38.5 percent of their shot attempts, and, consequently were embarrassed by the No. 16 team in the nation, 71-54.
Plain and simple, Bowman’s energy is volatile and contagious.
“Me being engaged the whole day is what is going to help me and my teammates actually stay engaged,” Bowman said. “If I have a down day, most of the time, the rest of the practice will be silent … The more that I’m up, the more engaged the practice is for everybody around me.”
That kind of effect on a team is admirable, but in no way efficient come February. Bowman and Robinson always talk about getting BC back to where it was in the early 2000s. If they’re going to do that, they’re going to need a whole lot of help from the guys behind the curtain. Who knows, if they don’t, the Eagles’ backcourt could very well leave for the Association.
Christian has been in rebuild mode for three years. With two NBA prospects, a bonafide power forward, a more experienced roster, and an identity, now is a better time to win than ever.
Featured Image by Keith Carroll / Heights Staff
Photos by Keith Carroll and Julia Hopkins / Heights Staff and Heights Editor