Thursday, November 12, 2009

Nine Teams, Nine Days: Boston University

Last season: 17-13 (11-5 America East), lost in America East quarterfinals to UMBC.

Head coach: Pat Chambers, first season.

Departing players: Marques Johnson, Brendan Sullivan, Sam Tully, Matt Wolff.

Incoming players: B.J. Bailey

Expected starting lineup (position, name, year, 2008-09 stats):
G Corey Lowe, senior, 17.2 PPG, 4.0 RPG, 4.1 APG
G Carlos Strong, senior, 6.4 PPG, 3.2 RPG, 0.8 APG
F/G John Holland, junior, 18.1 PPG, 5.5 RPG, 1.8 SPG
F Jake O'Brien, sophomore, 12.5 PPG, 4.6 RPG, 1.0 BPG
C Jeff Pelage, sophomore, 3.5 PPG, 3.0 RPG, 0.5 BPG

Player to watch: John Holland. If Marqus Blakely has a rival for the title of "Best Player in America East", it's Holland. That fits, considering both players are the same height and wear the same number. BU's junior swingman doesn't have Blakely's defensive reputation -- while Holland's length can wreak havoc at the top of a 1-3-1 zone, he isn't considered a lockdown man defender. What Holland brings to the table is the most complete offensive game in America East. The Terriers' number 23 is a feared perimeter shooter with plenty of range and enough height and athleticism to get his shot off against anyone. That shot pairs nicely with his ability to get in the lane, where he has been known to throw down more than his fair share of SportsCenter-quality dunks. Holland also rebounds well, shoots free throws well -- basically anything a wing player is supposed to do, Holland does at a high level. BU's status as the favorite in America East is contingent upon Holland's performance.

Biggest strength: Perimeter shooting. It's not hard to hit threes when a team's long-range attempts are limited to wide-open looks. The Terriers, on the other hand, take lots of threes -- nearly 45 percent of their field goal attempts -- and still manage to make them at an excellent rate. BU's success from longer distances is a product of having several excellent perimeter shooters. Holland and Corey Lowe are the obvious ones, but Carlos Strong is accurate from range as well. So is a healthy Tyler Morris, a career 39.1 percent 3-point shooter. B.J. Bailey has yet to establish himself as an offensive threat at the Division-I level, but his advance billing is that of a capable shooter. Whenever Jake O'Brien, last year's Rookie of the Year, is on the court, BU will have four players capable of shooting the 3-ball; when O'Brien is playing center, that number may increase to five. The Terriers are more than capable of shooting their opponents out of the gym.

Biggest weakness: Depth. Preseason prognostication projected the Terriers' primary rotation as consisting of eight players, four in the backcourt (Lowe, Strong, Morris and Bailey) and four in the frontcourt (Holland, O'Brien, Scott Brittain and Jeff Pelage), with occassional minutes for Valdas Sirutis and Sherrod Smith. Already, Brittain and Bailey have been sidelined by concussions, forcing Sirutis and Smith into the main rotation and thinning the Terrier reserves. Teams have won with shallow rotations before -- UMBC did it just two years prior -- but BU has multiple difficult stretches on its schedule, including seven of its first nine conference games coming on the road. If the Terriers are forced to play critical games with less than its full complement of players, their margin for error will be a lot smaller than it would be otherwise.

Guards: Corey Lowe is a 3-point shooter, first and foremost, but his game continues to evolve. Lowe's percentage of threes attempted (that is, 3PA/FGA) has fallen every season, as the senior guard now regularly looks to get to the rim with the game on the line. Lowe's real evolution, though, is as a distributor. Lowe's 4.1 APG last year makes him the only returning America East player to average more than four assists per game in the previous season; of returning players, only Junior Bernal also averaged more than three per game. For a player whose skillset is more off-guard than lead guard, Lowe's ability to keep his teammates involved while taking so many shots is remarkable. While Lowe isn't a defensive stopper, he's more than competent on that front, only adding to his value and cementing his status as one of this conference's great players.

Carlos Strong was the sixth man last year before a torn meniscus cut his season short, but the Portland native started in 18 games his sophomore year, when he averaged over 11 points per contest. Strong's game combines an excellent jumper with the ability to create his own shot opportunities and good perimeter defense. In keeping with his last name, Strong is also a powerful athlete with enough bulk to body up larger players and fight for rebounds.

Tyler Morris burst on to the scene as a freshman three years ago, scoring more than 13 points per game and winning America East Rookie of the Year honors. The two seasons that followed were marred by injuries, and the player whose quick release and pinpoint accuracy were a dangerous weapon has been visible only for brief moments. At his best, Morris is a dead-eye shooter, able distributor, tenacious defender and vocal leader; while his defense and on-court leadership are rarely questioned, his worst performances have been marred by frequent turnovers and inaccurate shooting. The senior guard has dropped some weight this year, perhaps aiming to regain some quickness and recapture his form from 2006-07, which would elevate the Terrier backcourt to a level rarely seen in America East.

B.J. Bailey arrives at BU in a curious position, as the only freshman on a team led by a coach different from the one who recruited him. While his concussion delays whatever impact he might have, Bailey's combination of shooting skills, strength, and athleticism should serve him well at the shooting guard position. Bailey is also a good enough ball-handler and passer to fill in at point guard if needed, although with both Lowe and Morris capable of running the point, extended time at lead guard seems unlikely.

Sherrod Smith began his collegiate career getting significant minutes as part of BU's guard rotation, but subpar performance eventually relegated the then-freshman swingman to garbage-time minutes. While Smith is unlikely to regularly see extended playing time after Brittain and Bailey are healthy, as a fill-in he is capable of getting the job done. The senior wing player has enough length to guard taller guards and small forwards and enough quickness to get past slower defenders. Exceptional results on either end of the floor should not be expected, but in a reserve role Smith isn't a major liability.

Tunde Agboola and Michael Schulze are BU's two senior walkons. Agboola has been with the team since his freshman year, while Schulze joined as a junior. Barring multiple additional injuries, neither is expected to play any significant minutes.

Forwards: John Holland's significant improvement as a 3-point shooter last season was widely noticed last season, but the 6-foot-5 junior swingman displayed improved free-throw shooting as well. Holland shot slightly under 65 percent from the charity stripe as a freshman; as a sophomore, that figure improved by 12 full percentage points. Holland can score from any position on the floor, and he can do so in ways that render his defender largely irrelevant. Paired with Lowe, Holland gives BU two of the most explosive offensive players in America East.

Jake O'Brien is the rare sort of forward who attempts more threes than twos. To his credit, O'Brien is also the rare sort of forward with a good enough jumper to make such a strategy work. As a freshman, O'Brien connected on more than 36 percent of his 3-point shots; that, paired with his blocked shots, proved to be enough for Rookie of the Year honors. O'Brien's biggest weakness is his rebounding. While his low offensive rebound totals are partially a product of spending so much time on the perimeter, O'Brien guards the usual spectrum of frontcourt players while on defense, yet does not corral an appropriate share of defensive rebounds. Now a sophomore, look for the BC High graduate to maintain his shooting performance while focusing somewhat more on more traditional forward responsibilities.

Scott Brittain suffered his third concussion prior to last season, and although the then-junior forward was back on the court for November 22's game against Saint Peter's, his play did not return to its usual level until conference play. Brittain's statistical decline last season was entirely a product of his injury -- during the America East season, he averaged more than 11 points and six rebounds a game, to go with 23 total blocks -- but another concussion prior to this season brings his long-term health into question. Even at his best, Brittain's considerable skills on both ends of the floor are limited by persistent foul trouble, but when healthy and focused he can have a major impact on a game. In Brittain's absence, a reasonably strong frontcourt becomes much more of a question mark.

Valdas Sirutis is almost a lot of things. Sirutis has almost enough range to justify operating from the perimeter, but his 8-of-37 career performance from beyond the arc suggests those shots aren't a good idea. Sirutis, at 6-foot-7, has almost enough size to become a physical presence down low, but 79 inches isn't enough to compensate for occasionally lackluster defense. Sirutis will see substantial minutes for some time due to Brittain's injury, and will at times put together a reasonably strong performance, reminding some of his 11 point, 5-of-5 shooting display against Binghamton in the 2007 America East quarterfinals. Overall, however, the qualities that would make Sirutis a reliable, even valuable reserve forward, rebounding and defense, aren't present in sufficient enough quantities.

Center: Jeff Pelage saw his playing time fluctuate over the course of the 2008-09 season, but as the campaign neared its conclusion the 6-foot-9 center showed signs of the player he may become, producing nine points and eight rebounds in 17 minutes against Iona before adding 10 and 12 with three blocks versus Maine. Pelage is the Terriers' best rebounder, a good shot-blocker and defender, and is reasonably efficient from the field. The biggest red flag is free-throw shooting: Pelage converted only 50 percent of free throws as a freshman, limiting the benefits granted by his ability to get to the line.

Outlook: Injuries threaten to derail the Terriers' season before it even begins. Then again, every team is to a greater or lesser degree susceptible to injuries. When healthy, the Terriers have the best collection of talent in the conference. As long as the Terriers have their full roster of players available for conference play -- something that's neither guaranteed nor particularly unlikely -- BU will be in the best position to win an America East title. For that reason, they sit atop these power rankings.

Link: Men's basketball season preview

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