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The Big Preview: Virginia Heads to Chestnut Hill to face BC

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NCAA Basketball: Virginia at Notre Dame Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports

The Virginia Cavaliers managed to escape Wake Forest on Wednesday, despite being down by double figures in the first half. It was not a fun first half to watch, in part because Wake was knocking down shot after shot. Once those shots stopped dropping, Virginia took control and moved to 6-2 on the season and 2-0 in the ACC. Now they head to Chestnut Hill where they face a surprisingly formidable Boston College squad.

The Boston College Eagles have played one of the toughest schedules in the nation, facing eight teams in KenPom’s top 100. They are 1-7 in those games, with the lone win coming against Rhode Island on Thanksgiving day and home losses to both Syracuse and Louisville in ACC games. Neither of those losses were particularly close. They did, however, take NC State to the wire in Raleigh and nearly knocked off Duke in Durham on Wednesday, losing 83-82. Yes, it was Duke’s first game after a long layoff and they played without Coach K. But that’s still an outstanding effort for a 2-8 team. BC led by double digits for much of the first half as Duke shook off the rust.

We don’t have to go back very far to see Virginia struggling to win in Chestnut Hill. Last year, for example, a poor BC team knocked off the Hoos 60-53 in early January. Virginia won with ease at home later in the season.

The main contributor to that BC win was sophomore Jay Heath, who dropped 17 points on 6 of 8 from the field including three treys. He shot 38% from downtown last year, ranking in the top 10 in the ACC in both attempts and makes. He’s not shooting it quite as well so far this year, but obviously he’s capable.

That’s good defense from Clark and really not much you can do about that. Opponents really seem to be knocking down those shots this year.

This was Ismael Massoud, who knocked down three early treys to help give Wake Forest the early lead on Wednesday. Again, that’s solid defense from Justin McKoy, just a good shot. Those shots stopped dropping in the second half for Wake, which is a big part of why the Hoos stormed back and won the game.

The Eagles shoot a ton of threes, ranking 27th early on in percentage of shots coming from downtown (almost 46%). That percentage is far lower in ACC games, as they attempted just 16 against Duke (out of 57 shots for 28%). But—and if you’re a Virginia fan, you know what happens when you see this against Virginia—they made nine of those 16, which is big part of why that game was so close. BC led that game at the under-four TV timeout, but missed a few chances to put the game away.

Six different Eagles average at least two three point attempts per game, and four of those guys shoot it well. Heath, of course, along with Wynston Tabbs (44%), Rich Kelly (39%) and CJ Felder (39%). Tabbs and Kelly are the PGs, though they’ll often play together with Heath in a three guard set. That will hurt them on the glass, which is a place they’ve struggled, but even in a “normal” set, they’re going to struggle on the glass. They just aren’t big. Two big men rotate, Steffon Mitchell and James Karnik.

Mitchell has been starting for four years now and is one of the most veteran players in the ACC. He’s very strong on the glass and solid defensively. But at 6’8” 220, he’s just giving up too much size to really cover Jay Huff. Karnick is a graduate transfer from Lehigh and has a bit more size. He’s not as athletic as Mitchell, but he’s got a decent post game and is a better scorer than Mitchell.

BC actually has a number of grad transfers. Karnick, Kelly (Quinnipiac), Makai Ashton-Langford (Providence) and Frederick Scott (Rider, via DePaul) have all come on board this year as grad transfers. Heath, Mitchell and Felder are really the only holdovers from last year.

When BC goes small with Tabbs, Kelly, Heath and Felder on the floor, Virginia will have some tough decisions to make. That’s a lot of shooters to defend with the Pack Line and Virginia has not performed well against the four-out and five-out offenses they’ve seen. Mitchell will shoot it as well, though he’s made just 25% for his career on almost 200 attempts and he’s just 5/24 (21%) this year.

Of that group, only Felder has any size (6’7” 225). So if BC goes that route, they’re going to have some issues guarding Virginia’s big wings on the perimeter. How does 6’2” Jay Heath stop 6’9” Trey Murphy from getting off a shot?

Boston College can score. They like to run and that can lead to easy shots and open looks.

We know it’s hard to run on the Hoos and that will make it tough on the Eagles. But they have shooters and they’ll try to spread the floor knock down some shots, which should lead to some creases for Felder and Tabbs to get to the rack. As we’ve seen this year, teams that shoot the ball well can beat this version of the Wahoos, at least right now. But Virginia defended a lot better in the second half against Wake Forest. The close-outs were much better. Hopefully, that is a sign of things to come. If BC knocks down enough outside shots, they can absolutely win this game. But Virginia should also be able to knock down some outside shots against a team with no big wings to defend the perimeter.