When Jim Christian took over the reins as the head coach of Boston College men’s basketball in 2014, a rebuild was imminent.
Out of the 13 players on BC’s roster that season, only three had more than two years of eligibility remaining. Two of those players—Idy Diallo and Darryl Hicks—transferred after last season, leaving current senior Garland Owens as the only remaining player from that first year. Christian had serious work to do to get BC back to being a sustainable, competitive program in the ACC.
That process is underway. Last year, he brought in Jerome Robinson and A.J. Turner, two three-star recruits who started as freshmen and will play the two and three this year, and Ervins Meznieks, a suitable forward off the bench. This year, he got Ky Bowman and Ty Graves, two freshman point guards with good potential to grow.
But the biggest issue was filling the void of BC’s biggest man: Dennis Clifford. Injuries sidetracked the 7-footer from really reaching his full potential until the latter half of last season, but he was still a good guy for BC’s youth to look up to (physically and metaphorically) during a long, losing season.
But tall, old man Clifford is no longer an Eagle, and his departure left BC without a man over 6-foot-7, save the young, undeveloped Johncarlos Reyes. Without any available high school recruits talented enough to fill the void right away, Christian did the only other thing he could: go after a graduate senior to give his younger guys a year to develop. As it turned out, he managed to snag two—Connar Tava and Mo Jeffers, each with several years of experience bodying up college players in the paint. Even better, they also happen to be guys who are ready to make those heads-up plays it takes to win.
“They’re the right kind of kids,” Christian said of the two. “They’re all about winning. They get it, and they play hard, and they play right … They give us a toughness that young guys just aren’t going to have.”
It’s their job moving forward to make the team big, both in gearing up for the future and in fitting with this year’s scheme.
There’s just one problem—they aren’t that big. At least, not by ACC standards. So first, they have to rise up themselves.
[aesop_quote type=”block” background=”#800000″ text=”#ffffff” width=”100%” align=”center” size=”2″ quote=”It’s the little fundamental technique things that you have to do right when you’re undersized, you have to do everything perfect to make that play. If you do one thing wrong, someone who’s a little bit larger can make up for that.” cite=”Connar Tava” parallax=”off” direction=”left”]
Tava was born as a coach’s dream.
For his entire life, according to his father, Tava (that’s “tay-vee,” not “tay-va” or “tah-va”) has been the definition of a team player. He had natural talent, but he also put high levels of energy into whichever game he was playing. Up until high school, when he was forced into choosing just one sport, that meant playing pretty much everything—basketball, hockey, football, and baseball. He was such a valuable addition to every team that coaches all vied for his time, permitting him to skip practice if needed just so he could make the games.
They didn’t want him on the court, ice, or field because Tava was a dominant scoring force. He could be that if he wanted to—there were nights when he would put up 25 points, but even then he might not realize it. Some guys say they’d rather get an assist than a basket. Tava felt that way constantly.
“He always wanted his teammates to score,” Mark Tava said. “He doesn’t care if he scores 35 or three.”
— BC Men's Basketball (@BCMBB) October 14, 2016
That degree of selflessness wasn’t limited to the court. By high school, he had narrowed his focus to basketball, his favorite activity. As a sophomore, when Tava became old enough to drive himself, his parents got him a car to commute to and from De La Salle Collegiate High School, a Catholic school about a half hour south from his hometown of Macomb, Mich., that Turner also attended. Over time, as his dad sometimes filled up the tank for him, Mark noticed the car—a late-’90s GMC Envoy—was getting poor gas milage relative to the Tavas’ distance from school. At last, he gave up on the car, getting his son a Dodge Avenger with the hope it would live up to its 30 miles per gallon billing.
Some time later, when families of the team members were gathered at an event, the Tavas were greeted with several bizarre messages. Both parents and teammates of Tava’s came up to them, saying how appreciative they were of him. At least one player expressed that he wouldn’t have managed to stay on the team without him.
As it turned out, Tava had taken to picking up several members of the team for practice, going out of his way to help out the guys who otherwise couldn’t have made it. He had never mentioned it to his parents—he just did it because he thought it was the right thing to do.
“We never told him to do it,” Mark said, referring both to his son’s on- and off-court selflessness. “He did that on his own.”
After graduating from De La Salle, Tava went to Western Michigan. He played some solid minutes off the bench in his first year before coming into his own as a sophomore and junior, ranking third and second in those seasons, respectively, on the team in points per game. But he still hadn’t abandoned his role to make others better—in both seasons, he led the squad in assists as a power forward.
Tava came into his senior year as the team’s returning leader in points, assists, and rebounds, earning him a preseason all-MAC selection. A sore right foot during the summer limited his workouts, but with extra rest, he prepared to play through the pain and take the court in November. Then he came down hard on his other foot one day in practice, breaking it and ending his last season before it began.
It wasn’t an easy reality, but Tava was built to handle it. He used the time off the court to watch, an opportunity he’d rarely had in his career. It slowed the game down for him, giving him a sideline coaching perspective.
“He’s not been just a coach on the floor,” Western Michigan head coach Steve Hawkins told MLive.com last December. “At practice he’s out here every day … There’s not a guy on this team, including the new guys, that doesn’t know what he’s done.”
In coming to BC, he hasn’t skipped a beat.
“Getting here, I’m kinda doing the same role,” Tava said. “If I can see something, you know, I try to tell Niko [Popovic], JC [Reyes], whomever. Whatever I can see.”
[aesop_quote type=”block” background=”#800000″ text=”#ffffff” width=”100%” align=”center” size=”2″ quote=”The big guys, they hate those little, annoying, energetic dudes that won’t let them have their spot. It makes them mad. So that’s what we do.” cite=”Mo Jeffers” parallax=”off” direction=”left”]
Unlike Tava, who never especially outsized the competition, Jeffers was always the big guy. He has towered over everyone since day one—just ask his mother.
“Since his very first day,” Robin Delk said with a laugh.
The oldest story she told dated back to his first day of preschool, when the 4-year-old D.C. boy stepped into school for the first time. His mom asked people at the school where to take her son for preschool, and they were directed to the cafeteria. Upon arriving there, they were told they had made a mistake—Jeffers should be in the auditorium. There, they discovered that was actually the place for first-graders, and they had to head on back. It took some time to convince the preschool teachers he belonged there in the cafeteria. It’s hard to blame them—by that time he was already the height of a second-grader.
Jeffers continued to grow fast. At one point, he wanted to take karate, but the instructors wouldn’t let him. A kid who had reached 6-foot-4 by middle school was far too big to face other children, they feared, while lack of experience made him incapable of taking on adults his size. He picked up football and baseball instead, as well as break dancing, which complemented his love of music.
Those activities, among others, kept him busy as a kid. And that was before basketball had even entered the picture. He never played, according to his mother, because he didn’t want people making assumptions about him based on his height.
“He used to say, ‘Because I’m tall, they think I’ll always know what to do,’” Delk said.
She also didn’t want him playing out on the streets in the inner city, so she kept his schedule full with other things. When he finally told her in eighth grade that he wanted to try it, she supported him, getting a hoop to put up next to their house. He and his friends took advantage of it.
Before he could really play at a competitive level, however, Jeffers had some business to take care of. He needed people to know he was more than just a tall guy playing the sport, so he sat down at the computer one weekend and taught himself the rules. Until he felt comfortable with the fundamental points and the basic, overall strategy, he wouldn’t try out.
“He’ll research something until he gets it, and then he’ll go full throttle,” Delk said.
The work paid off. After playing for two seasons at Woodrow Wilson High School, he transferred to finish at Calvin Coolidge, a school he led to the DCIAA semifinals as District All-Star. Jeffers matriculated to Delaware, where he served as a good role player his junior year and began as a starter last season. But then his offensive production slipped—after shooting 57 percent in 2014-15, that mark dipped to 40.2 percent the following year.
At times like that, his mother can tell when he feels he’s struggling on the floor. He’s not religious, she said, but is very spiritual. On the sideline, Jeffers will sometimes pause for a minute, putting his head down in his hands to think over a past play. He goes back to that research, taking in the game and analyzing what he could have done differently.
After completing his third season of NCAA eligibility, Jeffers decided he wanted a change. Before he could make any moves, he first had to graduate from Delaware, though he was just shy of the necessary credits. To get the final ones he needed, he took on an internship over the summer working at a group home in Pennsylvania. The director, who knew the family and gave him the position, was hesitant about Jeffers’s ability to handle it, since he comes off as a very quiet kid.
She needn’t have worried. The kids grew fond of him quickly, waiting, excited, for him to show up every day. The internship was only scheduled to last for a couple weeks, but he stayed for over a month to keep volunteering.
Now, at BC, he’ll continue his role as a mentor—even if he didn’t like the idea of making the trek up to New England to do it. Jeffers hates the cold, his mother said—she had to give him a bit of a push to get them on the plane. In arriving and meeting the coaching staff and some players, as well as former graduate senior Dimitri Batten, Jeffers found a place where he felt both comfortable and needed. He was sold from there.
In the past two years under Christian, men’s basketball has taken on three graduate transfers. In year one, he had Batten and Aaron Brown, two hard-working guys who rarely filled the stat sheet but served as decent role players behind Olivier Hanlan.
In year two, Christian brought in Eli Carter, a point guard from Florida who took over the reigns as the team’s main offensive weapon. Carter was supposed to be the guy that helped BC stay competitive while getting those underclassmen ACC-ready. Instead, he spent much of the season struggling to remain efficient, taking 33.2 percent of the team’s shots—the 14th-highest by any player in the country—many of which were poor-look threes. He led the team in assists with 4.0 per game, but also led with 3.5 turnovers a game, and the team’s offensive efficiency as a whole ranked in the bottom 10 percent in the country, according to kenpom.com.
Carter was, overall, a veteran guy used to running the show. He needed to keep the ball in his own hands to be productive—that just wasn’t a formula that worked. It also limited the visible on-court improvement by the younger guys around him, something fifth-year players should be expected to cultivate. Jeffers and Tava have already addressed that goal.
“It’s exciting to see all of the potential that we do have,” Tava said. “We’re only here for one year, but definitely going to follow them and try to help them, cause they have the talent and work ethic to do something great.”
Their playing styles should also fit better with the scheme. They came not primarily for their offensive potential—though they will be utilized there—but to just be the big guys.
“I was brought here not only to come contribute for this year, but to make our bigs a little tougher,” Jeffers said. “That’s my thing. I wanna get everyone tougher for the ACC.”
They know they’ll have to be tough—Tava will be working as a power forward at 6-foot-6, and Jeffers as the center at 6-foot-9. They’re not short, but they will have to go up against strong ACC opponents with a couple inches of an advantage. This season, BC’s forwards and centers are, on average, the shortest compared to every other team in the conference.
The key thing is, these aren’t guys who will be weak in the post. BC lists Jeffers at 240 pounds and Tava at 250. Maybe more importantly, they have the in-person look that they’re tough. Definitely more importantly, they have the attitude that they’re tough.
“I’m a little bit smaller, so I make up with it in strength,” Tava said.
“I’m undersized, too,” Jeffers added. “So just gotta stay stronger, have a lot of attitude. I’m not gonna let nobody push me around.”
But it would be a great oversimplification to just call them tough. That’s where it comes back to the small stuff, the intellectual parts of the game. Picking up the right man on a switch, bodying up your man as a shot goes up, making a cut to the hoop when a play breaks down instead of idling on the perimeter—those all make a difference.
In their own ways, Tava and Jeffers have been learning to play that type of basketball throughout their careers. Neither ever really needed that part of the game to succeed, since their size at every previous level would have given them good odds of succeeding.
Now the time has come to put it to use. They know it.
“It’s the little fundamental technique things that you have to do right when you’re undersized, you have to do everything perfect to make that play,” Tava said. “If you do one thing wrong, someone who’s a little bit larger can make up for that.”
Both guys have also come in with optimistic attitudes. In addressing the team’s goal, they answered at the same time, without hesitation: “Get a bid” / “Make it to the NCAA tournament.” They’re aware the realistic odds are low, but they want to build a positive culture, buying into and building off of Christian’s vision to make the Eagles competitive in the ACC.
And at the very least, they’re determined to make it hard and aggravating for teams to come play BC.
“The big guys, they hate those little, annoying, energetic dudes that won’t let them have their spot.” Jeffers said with a chuckle. “It makes them mad. So that’s what we do.”
Featured Image by Julia Hopkins / Heights Editor