Friday, January 9, 2009

The Day After: Albany 62, BU 61

Prior to Boston University's 62-61 loss against Albany on Thursday night, the Terriers' season had already contained a significant amount of ups-and-downs highlighted by the instant emergence of freshman forward Jake O'Brien, one of the best games BU has played in recent memory in a loss against Notre Dame and a two-game period during which the Terriers lost a pair of games by a combined 49 points and appeared lifeless doing so.

What happened last week tops all of those things as two of the Terriers' best guards have been deemed out for the season -- Tyler Morris and Carlos Strong. Morris' injury is the third in a string of injuries that have hampered his once extremely promising collegiate career while Strong suffered his first major ailment since coming to BU.

The diagnoses have left the Terriers with an extremely depleted backcourt, now boasting a rotation that looks like this:

Corey Lowe (shooting guard/can and often has played the point, 17.6 ppg)
Marques Johnson (true point guard, 1.2 ppg)
Sherrod Smith (wing/combo guard, has not scored)
Sam Tully (walk-on shooting guard, has not played)
Mike Schulze (walk-on point guard, played in one game)
Tunde Agboola (listed as a walk-on guard, but practices with the forwards, has not played)

The loss of two of BU's top five scorers will no doubt impact the remainder of the season. Morris (with the exception of BU's losses to Cornell and Holy Cross in which no one played particularly well) was improving with each game and was beginning to make his shots more consistently -- the way he does every day at practice. More than any aspect of Morris' game, however, BU will perhaps most miss his leadership and intensity. Morris is one of the few players in the conference who's passion and desire can seriously influence a game. Morris will continue his leadership role from the sidelines (a place he's unfortunately become far too familiar with after experiencing a severe amount of misfortune), but it won't have exactly the same impact.

Strong's loss will be felt as well as he was one of the best (if not the best) sixth men in the America East and another dangerous 3-point shooter for the Terriers. His ability to create his own shot off the dribble was one of the best on the team and his energy and passion, as well as his ability to remain calm in high-pressure situations will no longer be available to the Terriers.

Rather than dwelling too long on BU's losses, however, it may be more productive to discuss the impact Morris and Strong's unavailability will have on the remaining 15 conference games.

BU's loss to Albany proved that the Terriers (not only playing without Morris and Strong, but Lowe as well) are capable of holding their own even with their "new look" (for lack of a better term). For the first time all season, BU played an extended period of time (the whole game, in fact) with four forwards on the court and what was once expected to be the team's biggest weakness (forward play) must now become its strength.

It's expected that BU coach Dennis Wolff will either need to restructure some of his current plays or insert new ones into the rotation to adjust to the the situation. Against the Great Danes, the Terriers fed the post more than they have all season. In the first half, junior forward Scott Brittain (starting for the first time all season after starting 28 games last season) was the beneficiary, scoring 11 points in what was easily his best offensive effort through 13 games. BU will need many more identical performances from Brittain if they expect to be as competitive as they were before the injuries. In addition to Brittain, freshman Jeff Pelage as well as Matt Wolff and Valdas Sirutis will all need to perform at a higher level than they previously were to make the new system go -- especially rebounding-wise, because the lack of guards will most likely lead to less possessions and a slower tempo of play by BU with a hard emphasis on the halfcourt offense.

Because Morris and Strong were both fantastic outside shooters, the Terriers will no longer be considered the prolific 3-point shooting team they once were, but given Lowe, Holland and O'Brien's abilities to connect from downtown, BU will still be paid a fair amount of respect on the outside. It could turn into a blessing in disguise if team's preparing for the Terriers need to focus on interior as well as outside scoring in equal detail as opposed to earlier in the season.

In addition to the way BU's forwards played against Albany, perhaps the most impressive performance came from backup point guard Marques Johnson. Starting for just the seventh time in his career (and playing a full 40 minutes for the first time in his four years), Johnson turned in the best performance by a BU point guard this season, if not since Brian Macon ran the point. The New Jersey native recorded seven assists and didn't turn the ball over to go along with two steals and a career-high eight rebounds. Johnson did exactly what any basketball purist could ask of a point guard, selecting appropriate times to shoot, finding the open shooter and playing solid defense. While Johnson may not be as effective as he was against the Great Danes, if he can come close to replicating Thursday night's performance, it could help the Terriers, especially given the new flow of their offense. Johnson's impact will be extremely interesting to watch as the second half of BU's season unfolds and it could be one that makes matters better than they appeared to have been when the news of the injuries was broken.

Another player who's performance will be key if BU hopes to turn around their five-game losing streak and endure the loss of Strong and Morris is Holland. Thursday night, he proved he was more than capable of shouldering the scoring load (25 points) when called upon and had Lowe played alongside Holland, the game's outcome would have probably been different -- especially because Albany would have had two prolific shooters to worry about on BU's final play as opposed to keying-in on Holland.

One of the other foremost issues with the current situation is fatigue. Last night, three players (Wolff, Holland and Johnson) logged 40 minutes. It's probably going to be like that on most nights for the Terriers the rest of the way, so the current group will need to hope to stay healthy themselves and take measures to avoid severe fatigue by season's end.

The situation certainly isn't ideal for BU, but it's the reality. Where the team finds itself after its final 16 regular season games is anyone's best guess, but it will be incredibly interesting to watch. If the Terriers' effort Thursday night is any indication, the year is far from over.

-- Marques Johnson's ball control: Johnson didn't commit a single turnover in 40 minutes. Can't ask for much more from a backup point guard suddenly hoisted into the starting role.
-- Scott Brittain's first half: As much as he cost BU at the end of the game, Brittain had a fantastic first-half, scoring 11 points and looking like the Brittain of old. He's always played well against conference opponents, and will need to again this season.

-- Rebounding: Albany's a good rebounding team (plus-8 on the season) but the Terriers can't afford to give way on the defensive glass in the final minutes of a game as they did against Albany.
-- Jake O'Brien's play: After missing a few early shots, O'Brien was relatively quiet. In addition, he finished with just three rebounds and was 0-of-4 on attempts from beyond the 3-point line. If BU hopes to endure the injuries, O'Brien will need to play better than he did Thursday night.
-- Free-throw shooting: 10-of-20 from the line is basically what lost the Terriers the game (as well as some late-game turnovers). Now, more than ever, BU can't afford to give away points.

Minus key players, BU drops AE opener at Albany
Johnson fills in admirably for shorthanded Terriers
UAlbany works for Brown's 100th
Amazingly, UAlbany won't get shot down
UAlbany-Boston U. postgame thoughts
Photos from the Albany Times Union

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