By Carter Chapley
St. Louis, MO
After the longest opening homestand in SLU history, the Billikens have hit the road for their first trip of the season. After their statement win over Belmont on Saturday afternoon, the Bills packed their bags, jetting off to Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts. Where the Boston College Eagles wait for them in the showcase game of the Gotham Classic.
Technically, this is not the first road trip of the season for this group. The Bills went to Chicago for an extended trip in the preseason, including a scrimmage against Loyola-Chicago, but this is the first trip of the season with games that matter.
The Billiken’s early arrival in Boston allowed the team to get some practice time and team bonding in. Monday afternoon, the team was able to practice at Boston College’s gym and had a special guest arrive and provide some insight to the team. Boston Celtic guard Marcus Smart stopped by to visit his old Oklahoma State Coach Travis Ford. The Billikens then visited Smart at the Celtics facility and watched Boston play the Sacramento Kings. Smart played up to his audience, hitting the game-winning shot allowing the Celtics to top the Kings 103-102.
Historically, the Billikens have the opportunity to even their all-time record against Boston College, with the two teams having played 3 times previous to this one. Boston College owns a 2-1 record in those games. The last time the two met, was back in 2011 during the Anaheim 76 Classic where the Bills won 61-52.
Who they are:
Boston College has had an up and down season, but the general consensus has been that the team has had a lot more positive than they have negative. In many ways, the Billikens and the Eagles are in similar spots in the program’s plan. The team is anchored by returning veterans but relies on young talent to fill out the roster. Development while succeeding is a hard line to walk, but the two programs are trying.
Red Shirt Senior Guard Derryck Thornton was looked to be the anchor of the team and has performed up to his expectation averaging a team-high 16 points and 4 assists a night.
The team has seen positive steps in their development of a quartet of Freshmen, with Jay Heath and CJ Felder having played vital minutes early in the season. 6’11” Forward Nik Popovic has also taken steps forward, taking on a central role as the go-to big man in his senior year. Additionally, Junior big man Steffon Mitchell continues to be a solid defender and rebounder but has yet to turn the corner and become an offensive threat.
What they’ve done:
Boston College comes into the game with a 4-2 record, with their last time out having lost to a red-hot DePaul team. Like the Billikens, the Eagles have wins over High Point and Eastern Washington, but in their bout against the Belmont Bruins, the BC Eagles lost 100-85 on their home court. The Eagles other two wins came over their conference opponent Wake Forrest and an away game against South Florida.
What they do well:
Boston College is a curious case of doing everything pretty well, but nothing truly outstanding. They have historically not been great defensively, and, they have faltered at times early in the year (I.e., allowing 100 points to Belmont). But they have the pieces and have shown flashes of excellence on that end. Derryck Thornton and Steffon Mitchell are both excellent defensive presences, with Thornton being a guard ball stopper and Mitchell being a rim protector.
Defensively the Eagles are best at forcing turnovers and stealing the ball. The team is loaded with athletes who can play a variety of defensive positions and assignments. All of which do well of keeping their hands and feet active when the ball comes their way, forcing 18.5 opponent turnovers a game.
The Eagles play a tight rotation of about 7 guys who get regular minutes, all of which participate on offense. Still, no one player stands out as truly “that guy” beyond the already much talked about Derryck Thornton. The Eagles are extremely capable when they are allowed to play their way on offence. When playing up-tempo or in transition, Boston College can score as well as anyone the Bills have played.
How the Billikens win:
The Billikens will have the upper hand in rebounding game as, despite the Eagles star big men in Mitchell and Popovic, their rebounding numbers are shocking low. The Belmont Bruins, who the Bills thoroughly dominated on the glass, crushed the Eagles in their matchup on Chestnut Hill. The tandem of Hasahn French and Jordan Goodwin may be the best rebounders the Eagles have faced this season.
If the Billikens are going to be able to score points, they are going to have to take advantage of the porous perimeter defense of the Eagles. If the Bills are unable to make the Eagles pay from outside, BC will be able to pack the paint and stop the Bills from using their strength and size inside.
What gave the Billikens the edge against Belmont was their “toughness,” something Travis Ford preaches as being the little bit extra it takes to win ball games. The difference game primarily in their defensive game, with the collective group making significant strides in their ability to commit to their assignments and force the Bruins to play physical on offense. The Bills ground down Belmont and ultimately pulled off a win. To beat the Eagles, especially in their own building, a similar defensive performance will be necessary.
The Billikens face another test Wednesday. The young squad has been relatively sheltered in their own building. Riding the momentum of the SLUnatics and not having to deal with the challenges of travel.
In terms of rankings, the two teams are incredibly similar, with the KenPom ranking the Eagles as 110th in the nation and the Bills as 116th. The game provides challenges, but ultimately remains an incredibly winnable game for the Bills.
Tip off from Chestnut Hill is at 1pm St. Louis time, with the game being available on television on the ACC Network, and on the radio at 101.1 ESPN.