While we have tangible defensive statistics to pore over in the 21st century, they aren’t exactly as concrete or in-depth as their offensive counterparts, especially on the individual level.
It’s also not as easy for coaches to pinpoint and fix, other than the usual hustle, move your feet, hands up, don’t fall for shot fakes, etc. So when Boston University coach Joe Jones sees his team at 342nd nationally in defensive efficiency, he knows there is a problem, but attempting to rectify it can be extremely complicated.
His young Terriers did an admirable job of holding relatively high-powered Army in check for much of the evening Thursday night (holding a Division I opponent to under one point per possession – albeit barely – for only the third time this season), but down the stretch the Black Knights put them in bad matchups with their dribble-drive offense and were able to survive 71-67 even on a night where they shot just 3-22 from three-point range.
“Some of it is inexperience, some of it is our inability to stay focused, but I also think they do a good job, they do some things that keep you off-balance,” Jones said. “They run some good stuff, and they execute at a high level. I thought (Dylan) Cox was a big issue tonight, controlling the game and once he was able to get in the lane, he really hurt us.”
Indeed it was junior Dylan Cox and not Kyle Wilson who led Army (14-6, 5-4) with 16 points, and Cox might be the biggest key to his team’s recent success. The Black Knights have won four of five, two of those on Cox game-winning shots (at Holy Cross and American) that have looked eerily similar to a couple of big buckets Thursday where Cox drives strongly and finishes from a tough angle while contested, especially in transition.
“My teammates space the floor really well, and when they do that it makes my job easy,” Cox said. “As the point guard, I try to get into the jump circle like we practice on the break. Hopefully, things have cleared up, and if they do, I take advantage of it. Running the floor is my job.”
Cox is also third in the Patriot League in assist rate and averages four rebounds per game. In Army’s last four wins (in addition to the late game heroics), Cox has 23 assists against just 10 turnovers.
“A big part of it is Dylan’s size,” Spiker said. “He a legit 6’4”, and he’s able to finish over some smaller guards and get some stuff on the rim. He’s got some length, he can play some angles that other guys don’t have the ability to do. He’s open thanks to his teammates, but he’s not that open. He still makes some tough, tough finishes.”
The Terriers (8-12, 4-5) have now lost four of five, but are still in the middle of the Patriot League pack despite having to replace almost everything from last year’s regular season conference champions. Eric Fanning came off the bench to score a career-high 27 points (in just 24 minutes), and although Cedric Hankerson struggled (eight points, seven turnovers), Boston still had a chance to win the game on the road against a good opponent.
This game was a prime example of how much the Terriers miss Maurice Watson, who transferred to Creighton last summer. Boston finished with 11 points against 15 turnovers and does not have a player in the top 10 in assist rate in the Patriot this season (shooting guard John Papale is 11th, last season Watson finished second in Division I). Not to mention Watson’s presence at the other end, where – at least late in the game – the Terriers allowed 6’10” Kevin Ferguson to get the ball in good enough areas to score 18 points on 8-10 shooting and Army to shoot 12-13 on two-point shots in the second half.
“We had to make a couple of plays down the stretch that we didn’t make. A couple of balls go in and out,” Jones said. “That seems to be the difference in these games in our league. We have kind of a young team. We’re one for our last five games now, but we just have to keep our heads up and keep working. We have a good team, we just have to stay the course.”
One of those plays came with 8:35 left. Boston already had a three-point lead and Cheddi Mosely (another promising young player) had a three-pointer go halfway down and spin out like it was a rigged roulette wheel. Seconds later, Cox was at the other end scoring and being fouled and it went from a 6-point Terrier lead to a tie game. Trailing 69-67 with 10 seconds left, Boston was able to foul Larry Toomey, who was shooting just 27.7% from the line, but Toomey calmly drained both and Army had another win. After shooting 5-11 in the first half, the Terriers were just 1-14 in the second (making the two teams a combined 2-24).
Army has also struggled defensively (currently 252nd in efficiency), and despite a solid 0.93 points per possession performance Thursday, Spiker knows that will likely be one of the biggest keys to his team’s success the rest of the way.
“I did not think we defended to the best of our ability in the second half,” Spiker said. “We were a little fortunate of the 14 threes they took in the second half, the only one that they hit was the last one.”
By the tough standards of the preseason polls, Army has been a slight disappointment in Patriot League play, but now stands alone in third place in the mess that is the current conference standings, just two games behind leading Bucknell. The Black Knights are almost assured of just their second winning record in 35 years and the last time the program recorded more than 16 wins was 1977-78 under Mike Krzyzewski.
But this is not the time of year to pat yourself on the back. Not when so much lies ahead for the taking.
“It’s not really that time of year to scoreboard watch,” Spiker said. “The only time it really matters in the Patriot League is seeding for the playoffs and whether you get a home game or not, and we proved last year that isn’t even as valuable as it seems. So I would say looking too much at the standings is overrated and really dangerous because if you start looking at it when we were 1-3, we circled the wagons and tightened our own circle, and just focused on the things we needed to to get us better. We’ve made some progress, but if we sit around and look where we are, we might have another 1-3 stretch. All we need to do is take care of ourselves and the rest will take care of itself.”