By: Alex Smith
College basketball is a cruel mistress. Starting this Saturday, all ten Patriot League Teams will commence a grueling, 18-game league campaign that will span over parts of four months. In the end, the league season serves a singular purpose: to establish seeding for the Patriot League Tournament — the most important games of the year. The winner of the postseason conference tournament will earn a coveted NCAA tournament berth.
In the Patriot League, every team qualifies for the postseason. As we saw in both the men’s and women’s Patriot League Tournaments last year, literally anything can happen in these tournaments (shout out Robert Champion).
I mention all of this to remind you that regular season league play at the mid-major level hardly means anything in the big picture. Non-league play means virtually nothing as well. Teams do play in preseason scrimmages, but these non-conference games mean little more than those closed-door October tune-ups.
Non-league games, however, do give coaches the opportunity to assess line ups, use (or not use) their freshmen, try out different game plans and defensive schemes, and figure out the offensive pecking order.
At this time last year, the Terriers (2-9) were still in search of their first win, having failed to even play in a tightly contested game in their non-conference schedule. Dejected faces of players and coaches were all too common at the Roof.
This year, the Terriers have fallen victim to many of those same teams. However, the difference in effort, discipline, belief, and especially the commitment to defensive structure has been palpable. While neither of the UMass teams BU defeated were strong foes, both victories featured the Terriers overcoming key injury losses. Their comeback win over UMass-Amherst to close out the non-league slate showcased just how far this group has come in a calendar year.
The Terriers have yet to play a game with their full complement of players, and have been left wondering “what if” on several occasions as a result. This group should be feeling boosted and confident as junior tri-captain Corinne Williams and freshman Nia Irving should be fully healed before Patriot League play.
The early-season Beanpot tour saw the Terriers face Northeastern and BC away from home, and they struggled in both games. As BU sought to integrate an important new face in transfer center Sophie Beaudry, Coach Steding and her brand new staff also implemented new offensive concepts. The growing pains, though predictable and understandable, weren’t pretty.
Defensively, the Terriers showed immediate improvement from the season’s opening tip. With a starting five boasting two true centers in Beaudry and fellow junior Kara Sheftic, the Terriers were tough down low throughout the early season. Especially impressive were the two juniors’ performances against a talented Boston College front-court. Eleven games into the season, last year’s rebounding woes have become a distant memory.
BU has used several different looks defensively this year, and mixing it up has been key to their newfound success. Opponents don’t know whether they’ll face full court pressure, a sagging half court 1-2-2 or smothering man-to-man on any given possession.
The addition of the 6’5” Beaudry, coupled with the emergence of Naiyah Thompson as an elite defender at the top of BU’s zone, has given opponents fits. The Terriers nearly always have the tallest player on the floor, and though Sheftic may give up size in her matchups, she is rarely outmuscled in the paint.
Whether Sheftic and Beaudry will remain together in the starting five is the biggest decision coach Steding must make. Defensively, the pairing has flourished. On the offensive end, though, the same cannot be said.
This is not to say that either of the two aren’t effective offensive players. Beaudry is able to get her shot off over the top of any defender virtually any time she catches the ball, and with a 48% shooting clip, she’s BU’s best source of efficient offense. Sheftic is expert at drawing contact and whistles, leading the team in free throw attempts with 42 — a whopping 16 more than her closest teammate. Neither player is a weapon further away from the hoop, and cramming them both into the lane would mean no space for either to operate.
Sheftic has been asked to adapt her game and step out to the perimeter. She has done so admirably, playing with intelligence and zipping the ball around when it’s swung her way. Still, when she catches near the arc, her defender often sags off, either doubling Beaudry on the low block or closing off driving lanes for BU’s ball handlers.
A “stretch” four makes more sense on that side of the ball, and in the victory against UMass-Amherst, Meg Green showed how effective she can be when paired with Beaudry. With the defense focused on limiting Beaudry’s inside game, Green chipped in 16 points, knocking down wide open shots. She has been effective off the bench, and is less sound defensively than Sheftic, but for a team that has eclipsed 60 points only twice so far (and won both those games), something has got to give.
Corinne Williams is also an interesting option to start at the four. Against UMass-Lowell, she posted a career night, finishing with 19 points. At 6’1″, she’s a true wing with size and length, and was able to slide up a spot as Beaudry missed the game through injury. Sheftic started at center and controlled the lane, Williams moved to the four, and Thompson came into the starting line up at small forward. The Terriers didn’t miss a beat and captured their first win of the season.
Williams showed her versatility in the win, starting off with a pair of first quarter triples. Then, when defenders were forced to player her tighter, she breezed by them and attacked the basket off the bounce with her stronger left hand. It was a beautiful sight on a night the Terriers were missing their alpha-scorer. Her presence was missed when she suffered an injury of her own and missed BU’s final three non-conference games.
As Beaudry found her footing early on and became the team’s offensive focal point, Sarah Hope continued her assault on BU record books and bombed away from beyond the arc consistently. Hope’s scoring in the clutch and flair for the dramatic has been a bright spot over the last two years, and the Terriers’ ability to create good looks for her remains the single biggest determinant of their success. She’s connected on 35% of her triples this season, and leads the team in scoring at 11.5 per game. While often forced to hoist wild attempts late in the shot clock, and having been called upon to do far more ball-handling than would be ideal, the senior has carried a heavy load thus far in her final season at the Roof.
With Corinne Williams’ ever-evolving offensive repertoire alongside Beaudry’s nearly automatic lefty hook, the Terriers have three players capable of going off for 15 or more points on any given night. The supporting cast, simply put, must do better if the wins are to start piling up.
Terriers not named Hope are shooting a paltry 18% from downtown, and opposing defenses often choose to ignore BU’s other guards on the three point line, packing the lane. The game plan to beat BU has been simple and effective: shadow Hope step for step after she crosses half court, and double down on Beaudry even before she can receive the ball on the block.
These issues reared their head most notably in a tight home loss to Dartmouth, where the Terriers started hot, but managed just 18 points across quarters two and three. A noticeable drop in confidence from consecutive empty possessions seemed to affect all five on the floor. Capable shooters were found wide open repeatedly, and often refused to even attempt a shot outside of ten feet.
In BU’s two wins, the team overcame these confidence issues. The 6-10 points per night that BU needs from bench contributors like Payton Hauck, Naiyah Thompson and Meg Green will ultimately dictate the success of this group.
This became evident against UMass-Amherst, as Payton Hauck chipped in 10 and Naiyah Thompson dumped in eight points to complement Green’s 16 off the bench. BU earned a late comeback win thanks to six Beaudry blocks and a clutch Hope three-ball. The victory laid out BU’s blueprint for success, and could wind up being a turning point for a team desperate to reverse its recent trends.
It’s clear that in Hope, Beaudry and Williams, the Terriers have the big dogs to compete with anyone in the Patriot League, save perhaps preseason favorite Bucknell. The question then, remains: can BU’s young supporting cast grow up and flourish in time to support their stars and turn heads in the league this year?
Time to find out.
(Photos courtesy of Nicole Ericson. For hundreds of pictures from each BU home game, visit Terrier Shots on Facebook)