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Questions abound for Boston University early on

December 2, 2014 Columns, Your Phil of Hoops No Comments
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BOSTON – Joe Jones’ first words said it all on Sunday afternoon.

“A lot of questions for us,” said the Boston University head coach after the Terriers’ 69-59 loss to UMass-Lowell. “We’ve got a lot of questions we need to answer. We’ve got some things to figure out.”

It’s not entirely surprising that this is the case for the Terriers. Just look at their personnel and one key is clear: the Terriers lack a true point guard who can play right now. They are having to go essentially by committee with three wings, though Cedric Hankerson and John Papale have taken on the lion’s share of that duty. Both can handle and be playmakers, but they are also the team’s best scoring threats, so that hurts the offense.

It was known entering the season that this would be a challenge. The transfer of Maurice Watson, Jr. in the off-season hurt far beyond just the fact that he would be a Player of the Year candidate in the Patriot League. He gives them a competitive edge that they have lacked (and lacked at times last year as well) and they don’t have a point guard on the roster with Division I experience prior to this season. They were going to need someone to emerge at that position.

Hankerson, in particular, is shouldering a big portion of the load, and he’s been terrific thus far as he averages over 20 points per game, but he’s out of position and trying to figure out how best to play his role given the team’s needs. He’s wired to score, but knows he has to involve teammates, and has done that well, even to the tune of five assists with no turnovers on Sunday. It didn’t come easy, and not just because the Terriers lost.

“I think he just feels the burden of trying to carry us, because he’s looking around and it’s not like he’s playing with guys that have ever done it before,” said Jones.

That brings up the next personnel problem: the lack of inside scoring to complement the shooters. Nathan Dieudonne and Justin Alston have their moments, but neither has been a consistent scorer. Dieudonne, in particular, at times looks like he could be a breakout player this year, and his numbers aren’t bad, but he has stretches of assertiveness and stretches where he disappears. Alston was unstoppable for a brief stretch on Sunday against the smaller UMass-Lowell front line, but his modest stat line of eight points and five rebounds tells you that was about all.

In all, they are struggling to find roles, as well as depth. They didn’t get a single point from a reserve on Sunday in the limited minutes they went to the bench. Both are a sign that there is talent, but a lack of players emerging from the pack to contribute and take on a bigger role.

Right now, the losses have mounted, and the 1-4 Terriers aren’t playing with a lot of confidence. They showed a lot of it in their season opener against Northeastern, where for a lot of the game they looked more like the veteran team than the Huskies, and they didn’t seem to lack it in the win at Norfolk State or the loss at Kentucky, where they played the Wildcats tough for a while. Getting up for a game like that is never difficult, either.

Last Tuesday, however, the Terriers may have taken a turn for the worse. They went up to New Hampshire, a program they have dominated over the years, and lost a game they had a chance to win. The Wildcats pulled away from them late, getting their largest lead in the final seconds. That loss may have hit them a bit harder, perhaps because they may have come in being a little too confident.

“I think right now, we came into the game not feeling so good about ourselves,” said Jones. “We got hit in the head at New Hampshire, and I felt like it was almost a carryover in terms of our confidence. We didn’t look like a confident team.”

As much as the personnel issues pose a challenge, they aren’t going to change this season. The Terriers will have this roster all the way through, and in a year where the Patriot League should be very strong. The bigger battle will be with the intangibles, from players finding roles to gaining confidence. The latter will be the bigger challenge, because the Terriers have four home games of the six non-league games remaining. That means they have chances to win, and that becomes more important since their remaining road games – Harvard and Dayton – will be very tough to win. The most important thing will be preparation for Patriot League play, but winning games helps with that, too.

“It’s early in the year, you just hope that you can win some games while you try to figure it out,” said Jones. “You want to keep your guys up, you want to keep them positive. So much of this is your guys’ attitudes and how they’re feeling about themselves.”

Boston University isn’t lacking talent, as Jones noted. How the pieces fit is in question, and that’s a big part of the challenge facing them. How to gain confidence and compete is the bigger part, and where perhaps the most important questions facing them lie.

“We’re not playing with a lot of confidence right now,” Jones said. “We’re not playing hard, but we’re not playing with confidence right now.”

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