Once all the postgame handshakes were out of the way and Jim Christian was sorting through Boston College’s loss to Notre Dame last weekend, the Eagles coach found freshman forward Steffon Mitchell and passed along a quick observation he figured could go a long way.
“I told him, ‘If you want to be a good player in this league, you better play harder than that,’ ” Christian said. “I didn’t say he had to play better. I didn’t say he had to be a better shooter. I didn’t say he had to be a better free throw shooter.
“He knows those things. He had to play harder.”
It wasn’t just the 4 points on 1-for-3 shooting or the one rebound Mitchell pulled down in 35 minutes on the floor. It was the energy level.
When Mitchell heard that, he immediately understood.
“I think I play every game as hard as I can, but I don’t think I showed enough emotion during the Notre Dame game,” Mitchell said. “I still worked hard, but I didn’t get up and try to get other people going. I think I was just more worried about myself.”
Christian put the challenge in front of Mitchell and wanted to see how he would respond.
When the Eagles went to Raleigh to face North Carolina State three days later, it was clear Mitchell accepted the challenge.
Christian had him guard the Wolfpack’s leading scorer, Allerik Freeman. The 6-foot-3-inch shooting guard posed a tricky matchup for the 6-foot-8-inch Mitchell, but it was the kind of scenario that Mitchell thrives in.
“One of my favorite things is when a guard gets it, “ said Mitchell, “because I’m a bigger guy, they think they can kill me every time. But I think I’m a pretty good defender. I’m going to take that challenge to heart.”
Freeman finished with 20 points in the Wolfpack’s 82-66 win, but he had to labor for them, missing 8 of his 14 shots and 5 of his 7 threes.
“What makes him good is he took that and the next game he was the hardest-playing guy on the court — on either team,” Christian said. “And that’s why he has a chance to be good.”
At the start of the season, Mitchell wasn’t expected to have as big of a role as he’s had, but in his first season in the Atlantic Coast Conference, he has established himself as a relentless defender and timely playmaker for an Eagles team trying to secure its first postseason berth since going to the NIT in 2011.
He’s eighth in the ACC in rebounding (8.1 per game) and is on pace to become the first freshman to lead the Eagles in boards since 1973. No BC freshman has ever averaged eight for a season.
His 6.6 points per game seem modest, but they’re critical when you consider he never needs a play called for him.
“He understands and he plays to his strengths,” Christian said. “You play to your strengths and you compete, you’re going to be pretty good. That’s what he does.
“He’s going to work on his non-strengths, but that mentality of playing to your strengths and competing like that is going to make him a good player.”
Night to night, Mitchell finds ways to leave his fingerprints on games, whether it’s a timely block or a key rebound.
“I take great pride in that, because I like winning,” Mitchell said. “I’m a very competitive person. I don’t need to have a play called. If the shot’s there, if the ball’s there, I’m going to go get it. It could be everybody else running for it, but I feel like I could get it before everybody else.”
Mitchell didn’t crack the starting lineup until the eighth game of the season, against Nebraska. But when transfer Deontae Hawkins went down with a season-ending knee injury in December, Mitchell was thrown into the fire.
Christian envisioned lineups where Mitchell could have been at small forward, Hawkins at power forward, and Nik Popovic at center. Or Hawkins at center, Mitchell at power forward, and Jordan Chatman at small forward.
“What it did was it took away all of the lineup combinations we could’ve had,” Christian said.
So Mitchell has averaged 32.8 minutes per game (35.8 in ACC play), getting on-the-job training in one of the toughest conferences in the country.
“I’d rather have this problem than not getting enough,” he said. “I do play a lot. I can do anything. I can do what it takes to win. If I think I can hit a shot, I can take it. There’s no limitations.”
In his first run through the ACC, he has seen his share of star power, and it didn’t shake him.
There was Duke’s lottery-bound big man Marvin Bagley III, who had one of his quietest nights of the season in a stunning loss to BC in December, going 6 for 11 with 15 points with Mitchell pushing him off the block and never letting him get a clean catch in the post.
“Someone can’t hurt you if they don’t get the ball,” Mitchell said.
Then there was his battle with North Carolina wing man Theo Pinson. They turned the glass into a turf war. Pinson grabbed eight boards (four offensive). Mitchell grabbed 10 (five offensive).
“Funny guy,” said Mitchell. “Just his whole demeanor, he’s just a funny person to even compete against, some of the things he was saying.”
For a freshman, the experience is invaluable.
“It gives him a lot of confidence, because he’s not just running around, he’s having success out there,” Christian said. “When you have success, then you’re able to build off it.”
With three games left, beginning Saturday at Miami, BC (16-12, 6-9) still has plenty to play for, in a season that’s been a crash course for Mitchell.
“This is the first year all of us have actually had something to compete for,” Mitchell said. “Our goal is to still get into the NCAA Tournament. We can still finish 9-9 and sneak in. We still control our own destiny.”Julian Benbow can be reached at email@example.com.