Three Thoughts: Boston University 75, Lehigh 56

Allowing 17 straight points is usually a terrible way to end a game. But it was just a garbage-time footnote for Boston University on Saturday afternoon, not even halving what had been a 75-39 lead. The Terriers led for all but 12 seconds of their home conference opener, burying Lehigh with a barrage of three-pointers to improve to 2-0 in Patriot League play, and dropping the Mountain Hawks to 0-2.

Lehigh center Tim Kempton shoots over two Boston University defenders at Case Gym.

Lehigh center Tim Kempton shoots over two Boston University defenders at Case Gym.

Boston U. shot 14-25 from beyond the arc, but its performance on the other end was even more encouraging. The Terriers have been Lafayette-lite this season, with a top-75 offense but a defense ranked in the bottom 10 nationally in defensive efficiency (per KenPom.com). In holding Lehigh to .82 points per possession (.65 ppp before the visitors’ late run), Boston U. played its best defensive game so far.

“The reason why we got off to such a bad start [to the season] is that we couldn’t defend. We couldn’t stay in front of anybody,” BU coach Joe Jones said. “We’re starting to play harder. You can see guys starting to get it, and it’s taken us some time.”

The Mountain Hawks’ offense was complicit in its struggles, settling for off-balance floaters and two-point jumpers. They relied heavily on predictable post-ups for leading scorer Tim Kempton; he scored 13 points but was often hounded by Justin Alston and a pesky help defender, shooting just 5-11 and committing six turnovers. Mixing man and zone looks, the Terriers played passing lanes aggressively and trapped smartly, forcing the Mountain Hawks into 16 giveaways.

“We threw some long bounce passes that were easily stolen, based on their length and athleticism. We were not secure with our footwork, whether it was in post or on the perimeter,” Lehigh coach Brett Reed said. “It seemed like it almost heaped on for certain guys, who got more and more frustrated because they could not make the proper plays.”

Three other thoughts from Saturday’s game:

1. Eric Fanning could be BU’s second playmaker. Cedric Hankerson has been the Patriot League’s breakout player, going from a bench role as a rookie to an 18.8-ppg star as a sophomore. But while the Terriers surround Hankerson with several shooters, including Cheddi Mosely and John Papale, they have lacked another true playmaker. Fanning filled that role on Saturday, scoring a career-high 21 points on just 12 possessions; he consistently got to the foul line and added six assists.

A sophomore transfer from Wagner, Fanning is still coming up the learning curve. He has played about 20 minutes per game since opening day, but his usage has steadily increased throughout the season. His career assist rate is unspectacular, but if he can continue passing as he did against Lehigh, the Terriers will have two well-rounded perimeter weapons.

“I feel like I’m a lot better [than at the start of the season],” Fanning said. “I was trying to figure out my role, what I’m good at, my spots I can score. My teammates always yell at me to shoot the ball, to be confident — they seem to have more confidence in me than I do at times.”

2. The three-point shooting gods are frowning on Lehigh. Each of the Mountain Hawks’ last three opponents (UMBC, Colgate, and BU) has shot 50% or better from three-point range, with at least 10 made treys. Because defenses don’t have much control over three-point accuracy, those percentages should fall in the future — but that doesn’t mean there’s no reason for concern. Lehigh has allowed a lot of three-point attempts all season (more than 40% of opponents’ shots have come from beyond the arc), which is a much more reliable indicator. And against many Patriot League opponents — including sharp-shooting rival Lafayette — gambling on three-point luck is a bad proposition.

“We have to defend the three-point line. It’s a basic element of today’s game in college basketball,” Reed said. “Those extra points per possession become very dangerous, and can fuel runs and can demoralize our defense.”

3. Is Boston U. a legit Patriot League title contender? Few expected the Terriers to repeat as Patriot League champions after practically all of last year’s rotation graduated or transferred; even fewer were optimistic after their 2-6 start. But with an overtime win at Holy Cross and today’s hammering of Lehigh, the Terriers are one of three teams still perfect in conference play. With a young team that seems to be finding its stride on both ends of the floor, Boston U. should finish the season better than it started.

And perhaps no conference is more wide-open than this year’s Patriot League. Holy Cross looked like a favorite until it lost four straight games, including its first two in league play. Army looked like a favorite until it surrendered 92 points to Lafayette. Lafayette looked like a favorite until it lost at home to Navy today. The three unbeaten teams are BU (picked sixth of 10 in the preseason poll), Colgate (eighth), and Navy (10th).

So is Boston U. really a contender? There’s only one answer:

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