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The turnaround begins now for Boston College

October 12, 2016 Columns No Comments

Jim Christian has an excitement about what’s in front of him that he hasn’t had his first two seasons at Boston College. It comes at about the time he thought it might happen.

Now that might surprise you if you know where his team was last season. He has his reasons, though, and they’re understandable.

2015-16 was a season to forget at The Heights in pretty much every way. As you might expect when a team doesn’t win a conference game, there is no statistical area that goes down as a “bright spot” to potentially build on. The Eagles allowed opponents to shoot 46 percent from the field while only making 41 percent of their shots, they were out-rebounded by 5.5 per game and turned the ball over more than their opponents. Indicative of just how bad the season went is that only three of the 19 losses (including the loss to Florida State in the ACC Tournament) were by single digits, one of them a heart-breaker at NC State at the buzzer.

But that’s practically ancient history now. Christian doesn’t want to talk about it, and you can hardly blame him. It, along with his first season, were necessary transition years. Now comes the fun part for him and his staff.

The Eagles have a team with ten freshmen and sophomores, and this will form the core of the team. The way Christian looks at it, he has a group that’s going to play 90 or so games together. He knew the first two years would be challenges, but now the nucleus has been formed between the two youngest classes. This year’s team has just one true senior (Garland Owens) and three graduate transfers, along with no juniors. The story will be told with their young guys and how well they develop over time.

The idea of building around a young core is not new, and it is probably the best way to do it at a place like Boston College that doesn’t have many natural recruiting advantages. Very recently we saw a team go far with a group that played a lot together – last season, Oklahoma made the Final Four headed by a group of four players who had started 105 consecutive games together over three seasons, and all four had scored over 1,000 career points. None were McDonald’s All-Americans or really all that close coming into college, though one developed into the National Player of the Year. To be clear, this isn’t to say the same thing will happen at Boston College, only that the path the Eagles are going has been tried before and has been successful.

Jerome Robinson heads up the sophomore class after he was second on the team in scoring last season. He looked sharp in Saturday’s early practice, and will be the odds-on-favorite to lead in scoring this time around. Classmate A.J. Turner is talented enough to shoot better than he did last year and looks more mature physically, while still having more to fill out. Those are good places to start, especially when you add Johncarlos Reyes, a long 6’10” forward who redshirted last year and can start approaching his potential with added strength; at practice, he was active and showed a little range shooting when he faced up.

Behind them are the guys who could be the difference-makers, though. Ky Bowman is the one they are the highest on, and a lot of it is from his motor and overall attitude. Also a football player who opted for the hardwood, the 6’1″ point guard is very athletic and another the Eagles managed to snag out of North Carolina along with Robinson and classmate Ty Graves. Graves, for his part, gives them another faster guard who will play right away. Mike Sagay flew under a lot of radars in the New England prep scene, which is hard to do, and has a chance but clearly has to get a better feel for the game right now. 6’11” forward Nik Popovic shows promise and should get minutes right away as he develops.

Bowman and Graves bring more to this team than just their talent, and they might not be the most talented players on the team. The Eagles haven’t played very fast in Christian’s first two seasons, each with a makeshift roster. But now, they can play faster with them in the backcourt and even try to speed teams up instead of being sped up. They give BC more options and more ways to match up with teams.

The three graduate transfers will all help in certain roles. Maurice Jeffers comes from Delaware and can be a nice inside presence at both ends, while Jordan Chatman comes from BYU and looks longer than you expect someone at 6’5″ to be; he gives them another perimeter threat. Connar Tava comes from Western Michigan and won’t leap out at you, especially on a highlight reel, but his feel for the game is terrific, and just what this young team needs.

The schedule has a few challenges, but mainly features chances to win games before ACC play. They don’t play a true road game in non-conference, though they go to Brooklyn for the Barclays Center Classic (against Kansas State and either Maryland or Richmond), New York for the Under Armour Reunion (against Auburn) and Mohegan Sun in Connecticut for the Birthdate of Basketball (against Fairfield). The home non-conference slate isn’t all easy, as CAA contender Towson, Ivy League favorite Harvard and Providence all come to town, but a few challenging games are fine. The Eagles need to win games, but they also need to win against better competition as time goes on to keep growing.

BC’s staff knew that it would take a couple of years to get the personnel situation settled, and there might be some rough times. When they came in, the best rising senior transferred along with another key rising senior and junior, and the roster was heavy on upperclassmen but very short on young talent. That first roster had just Owens and two freshmen, neither of whom is still with the team and one of whom missed two years due to knee injuries. Last year was the kind of challenging one that Year Two often is for a staff that enters in that situation, though no one expected a winless conference run.

There’s no reason to predict an improvement to an NCAA Tournament appearance this season, but there is reason to expect good forward progress. The staff feels like in every respect, including off-court matters, they have who they need in place to start turning things around. And as such, you can’t blame them if they appear to have an extra hop in their step as they prepare for this season, even with the growing pains that are sure to come.

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