By: Ethan Fuller
In yet another thrilling contest between two evenly-matched rivals, Boston University men’s basketball lost their home opener to Northeastern University on Tuesday. The 72-67 defeat featured a grueling game in which neither side led by more than seven points, and ultimately the outcome came down to some crucial second-half possessions.
For their first test as a unit with plenty of new pieces, the Terriers performed admirably, but a deeper dive into their play shows obvious room for improvement. At the same time, Tuesday hinted at critical signs of growth for BU, most notably from sophomores Walter Whyte and Alex Vilarino.
Based off the eye test, BU struggled to penetrate the size and strength of the NU guards and wings, who played tough defense all night. The central issue ran deeper; according to head coach Joe Jones, the offensive game plan was halted by isolation play and sloppiness.
“We don’t play the way we did tonight,” Jones said postgame. “There was a ton of one-on-one, dribble-dribble-dribble, take my man, and that’s not the way we play.”
“But you gotta give [Northeastern] credit,” he added. “They were hanging on our stuff, they were denying reversal passes; we had a hard time flowing in the offense. It kind of forced us to play that way.”
Jones explained that the Huskies relied on “ice” pick-and-roll defense to keep BU’s ball-handlers from getting inside. With this strategy, the on-ball defender plays up tight on the ball-handler and forcers them to one side of the court and away from the screen.
At the same time, the screen defender stays low, effectively allowing the ball-handler an easy pass back to the big but blocking a drive to the rim. Here the ball should swing through the big to the other side of the floor. That was not happening.
“We were just playing with the ball way too long. We turned the ball over, we took bad shots — the ball got stuck on one side of the floor,” said Jones.
“We never used the big to reverse the ball to the other side of the floor. We practiced it and practiced it. I’m shocked that we did that… we just broke things off way too early in the possession.”
Defending Jordan Roland
The Huskies’ redshirt senior took over Case Gym in Northeastern’s win, dropping a career-high 39 points — over half of NU’s total. His smooth athleticism, quick release and good elevation on his shot proved devastating for the Terrier defenders.
“The way he shoots it — he doesn’t drop it. He just gets it and gets it off,” Jones said.
Sophomore Jonas Harper guarded Roland early, and Whyte and junior Javante McCoy matched up on him later to some improvement. Overall, though, Roland simply overpowered the Terriers’ game plan.
“He made a lot of contested shots,” Whyte noted. “We wanted him to take those shots and he made them.”
BU hoped to get Roland out of a catch-and-shoot rhythm, which they did with relative consistency. The Northeastern star only made two of his seven three-point attempts on the night, doing most of his damage on difficult floaters and pull-ups. For the Terriers, only so much can be done.
“We stuck to the game plan and that was what happened,” Whyte said. “We gotta live with the results. I think we did a lot of good things on defense.”
Walter Whyte’s Efficiency
By far the biggest positive for BU was the immediate profound impact Walter Whyte made on the game. After missing all of last year with a bone bruise, Whyte not only looked healthy, but also much improved from his freshman season.
The standout stats from Whyte, aside from his collegiate-high 23 points, are the remarkably efficient shooting totals. The redshirt sophomore went 8-of-14 from the floor, including 4-of-8 from downtown, and largely displayed great shot selection. Due to being sidelined from most basketball activities, Whyte spent a lot of his recovery time working on that jump shot.
“That was kind of the big thing I could do for a long time — focusing on my footwork, my balance, releasing at a high point, that was the big thing,” he said.
Now, when Whyte has enough time to get into his form, his overall shot motion looks fluid. He continued by addressing how a consistent jumper makes the rest of his offensive game more dangerous.
“Being able to drive, attack closeouts, knowing when to shoot and when to drive — it’s just a new aspect of my game.”
Though he didn’t necessarily play poorly, senior Max Mahoney had a relatively quiet night against the Huskies. The All-Patriot League Preseason First Team nominee recorded eight points on eight shots while grabbing four rebounds in 23 minutes.
Part of the underwhelming performance was due to Mahoney sitting out the latter portion of the first half after sustaining a minor injury. But even when he returned, Mahoney was not the focal point many viewers expected. According to Coach Jones, the overall offensive stagnation contributed to the struggles.
“[If] we play within a flow the way we usually do, I think he’s a bigger factor,” he said.
Additionally, the Huskies’ “length and size” challenged the Terriers. “Us not playing against that length every day, I thought that made it hard for us to make some decisions,” the head coach added.
Jones concluded by saying he would like Mahoney to get “twelve or fifteen shots” over the course of a usual game. Expect the star forward to have a much larger impact going forward.
Obviously Tuesday night did not go as planned for the Terriers, and their offensive execution jumps out as the largest issue. Within that, I believe they have clear pathways to grow ahead of Saturday’s matchup with SUNY Polytechnic.
Firstly, the modern measures of effective shooting — threes and free throws — became problematic as the game wore on. BU shot just 26.7 percent from long range in the second half after shooting fairly well over the first twenty minutes.
The free throw struggles were more glaring. The Terriers made just five of twelve attempts at the line Tuesday. If they even make ten of those twelve, the final score would be tied. Free-throw shooting needs to improve.
Shooting splits should expectedly increase as players get into a season-long rhythm. In addition, look for the bench scoring presence to increase. Outside of Andrew Petcash, BU’s bench failed to score. As freshman Ethan Brittain-Watts acclimates to a fairly prominent backup point guard role and Jack Hemphill’s shots fall (they should), the reserves will add a necessary punch.
One player who did seem to break Northeastern’s stout defense and get to the rim was sophomore point guard Alex Vilarino, who was frequently labeled one of the offseason’s most improved players. Opening night featured a Vilarino who is clearly stronger and more confident driving to the basket. His speed, plus the added strength, makes him a lethal threat who can open up space for BU’s arsenal of shooters.
Saturday’s 1:00 P.M. home game will be a chance for the Terriers to focus in on their offensive game plan and develop a real-time flow. If they can unlock some of the ball movement and consistency Jones spoke on, this team can drastically raise its ceiling.