BC’s Senior Odd Couple Grabs The Reins

Dennis Clifford

There’s 12:53 remaining in the first half of a January game in Coral Gables, Fla. Boston College men’s basketball is trailing the Miami Hurricanes by five when backup point guard Steve Perpiglia checks in for Olivier Hanlan. Head coach Jim Christian likes to give Hanlan an extra minute or so of rest ahead of select media timeouts before reinserting his star guard into the game. Perpiglia will presumably trot back to the bench at the first dead ball under 12 minutes, and he’ll stay there. Fifty seconds at Cameron Indoor here, a minute and a half against New Mexico there. The 5-foot-9 walk-on doesn’t complain.

“Usually it’s literally like 45 seconds and you’re out,” Perpiglia said, flashing his familiar, Chip Skylark-esque grin. But that day, the basketball gods had different plans. Fifty-three seconds rolled by without a whistle. An extra minute flew past, and a deep lactic burn rippled through his thighs. Then another 60 seconds—60 hot, dizzy, delirious seconds—ticked off the clock. By this time, it felt as though someone had jammed a bottle cap down his trachea.

When center Will Magarity took a foul with 9:58 to go in the half, Perpiglia was spent. “I was exhausted,” he said. “I had never played for three and a half minutes straight. I looked at coach Wu [Bill Wuczynski], and I was like, ‘I’m so tired—but that was awesome!’”

Perpiglia committed two fouls and coughed up one turnover in just under three minutes. He had a neutral net rating.

Entering the 2015-16 campaign, the senior doesn’t have a single career statistic in double digits. In three years and 41 total minutes wearing maroon and gold, he has racked up four points on eight field goal attempts, shooting 0-for-4 from behind the arc, with two rebounds, five assists, and a matching quintet of turnovers. He hasn’t shot an in-game free throw since the spring of 2012, when he was a senior captain at Malvern Prep in Pennsylvania averaging 12 points, six assists, and over five rebounds per contest. Each of his single-game averages in high school eclipses his career totals at BC.

On the opposite end of the spectrum there’s Dennis Clifford, a 7-foot-1 hulk of a man, the fifth-year center who has battled his way through a flurry of knee complications to return to the court and anchor the Eagles’ interior defense. Whereas Perpiglia saw 29 minutes of action all of last year, Clifford logged the same number in an early-season bout with Dayton, a 65-53 loss in Puerto Rico. And yet, both see themselves—and each other—as vocal leaders.

If he’s not on the court participating in live drills, and he often isn’t, Perpiglia is scanning the play with laser focus, ready to bark out orders like Ron Weasley in a game of Wizard’s Chess. It’s Year Two of the Jim Christian Era, and the coach looks to his seniors to hold the team accountable.

“We have a lot of young guys,” Perpiglia said. “It puts a lot of pressure on the older guys to be leaders and be vocal during practice.”

Clifford, who opted into his final year with the Eagles instead of looking for a fresh start elsewhere with his fifth year of NCAA eligibility, doesn’t want to leave the program in poor condition when he hangs up his sneakers. He felt an allegiance to Christian’s program.

“He’s special to me because there’s not many guys who do that,” Christian said. “I think that, to me, is probably the best story on our team.”

After a summer of strenuous training and near-constant pickup games, Clifford feels like he has finally smoothed out some of the rough spots in his game. “My rhythm and being a part of the offense was really thrown off just from not playing for awhile,” he said, alluding to the knee operation that sidelined him for all but two games in 2013-14.

It happened again and again last season. Clifford would muscle his way to the offensive glass or slide along the baseline for a nifty bounce pass from a slashing teammate. Then, right as he was about to jam the ball home, some pesky little guard from the other team would swipe down and dislodge the ball from the big man’s grip. A sure two points for the Eagles had turned into a mad dash the other way.

An extra eight months of live scrimmaging has helped Clifford get back to where he was freshman year, and the coaching staff has worked with its bigs all summer to improve their finishing skills. There’s one drill where a coach tosses the ball off the backboard and Clifford has to collect the rebound at its highest point with two hands. Then, it’s a free-for-all where two managers with pads have full license to clobber, shove, and smack the center as he tries to cram the ball through the net. That’s right: Layups don’t count.

This year, as the lone returnee who averaged over 17 minutes per game last season, Clifford will be counted on to shoulder the lion’s share of minutes at center for Christian’s guard-heavy squad.

“I think as long as Dennis can breathe, we’re going to need him on the court,” Perpiglia said, turning to Clifford. “We’re gonna need you for a lot of minutes.”

He’s right. Sophomore Idy Diallo and freshman Johncarlos Reyes are behind Clifford on the depth chart, and both are too raw to see meaningful ACC minutes.

That’s where Perpiglia comes in. “Sometimes you’re just there to be a coach and be a veteran guy, kinda pulling people around. I’m always trying to help Idy and J.C. out,” he said. “The younger kids sometimes need some direction. Instead of one of the coaches coming up to them, I’ll just go over and tell them how it should be done or how Coach wants us to execute that play.”

With the body of, as Clifford puts it, “an NBA guy,” Diallo has long arms, a quick second jump, and terrific shot-blocking instincts. But his susceptibility to frequent mental blips has made him something of a lightning rod for criticism from the coaching staff.

Reyes, a freshman with a soft touch and interior finesse, moves at the pace of a beached whale trying to wiggle its way back to the water when Christian has his team sprinting through defensive positioning drills. That’s not what you want when Duke comes to town.

All this inexperience behind Clifford, of course, means one thing: The Eagles will be playing a whole lot of small ball. Barring a total surprise, 6-foot-5 junior Garland Owens will begin the season as the nominal starting power forward for Christian, and the four-out-one-in approach carries with it some theoretical positives for Clifford. There should be more space for him to post up on offense with four shooters dotting the perimeter, and positions one through four should be able to switch most ball screens on defense.

But there are some drawbacks, too. “I think it’s tough on the rebounding end,” Clifford said. “Especially in the ACC, every team has two guys who are basically the twin towers.” Owens should be able to hold his own despite the sizable height deficit––he has fought admirably at the four in limited minutes under both former head coach Steve Donahue and Christian. But if weaker and less experienced types like A.J. Turner get extended run next to Clifford, the big fella could have his work cut out for him under the rim. There will be games this season where the opposition munches boards, and it won’t necessarily be Clifford’s fault.

Things could also get murky before shots go up, especially early in the season when the NCAA officiating committee looks to hammer home its 25 new rule changes.

Referees have been told to keep a close eye on low-post contact, and if Clifford heads to the pine with two quick fouls, his team has virtually no recourse.

For his part, Perpiglia doesn’t think the rule changes will have a lasting effect. “They come in every year and they have their ‘points of emphasis,’” he said. “By the time the conference season hits, I feel like they don’t enforce those rules as strictly.”

More importantly for the senior from Philadelphia, he’s got a new protege in Gordon Gehan to tutor on sideline celebrations. When former walk-on and current senior Drew Jacobs left the team before last season, Perpiglia felt like he was all alone on Bench Antics Island. He had lost his shenanigan companion.

“When Drew was there we had a lot of different stuff,” Perpiglia said. “We had a 3-point telescope. We sometimes did a rowboat with the 3-point fingers. I always messed around. I even had a pizza tosser thing.”

During a film session two years ago, Donahue was breaking down a good offensive play from the night before, and he made sure to keep the clip rolling until the camera zoomed in on Jacobs and Perpiglia at the end of the bench. To the surprise of no one, they were performing an original “3-point robot” routine.

Perpiglia has created his fair share of fun memories on the basketball team, but that doesn’t mean the program itself has been steady—far from it.

Players have come and gone throughout the years. Some graduated. Some gave up and got the hell out of dodge the moment things turned south. Joe Rahon suits up for St. Mary’s College this season, and Ryan Anderson will be playing for Sean Miller at the University of Arizona.

Still others stuck it out another year before hitting the reset button. Lonnie Jackson is at Boise State University. K.C. Caudill (Nicholls State University) and Will Magarity (Davidson College) sought greener pastures, too.

“Those guys had different personal ambitions, and it led them to other places,” Perpiglia said.

But Clifford and Perpiglia stayed. Now, they’re the only seniors remaining—graduate transfer Eli Carter is a welcome addition to the team, too—and both are looking to point this ship in the right direction in their final year as Eagles.

“Now that there’s a select few of us, we’ve come together,” Clifford said about the remaining Donahue holdovers. “There’s only one common goal.”

Griffin Connolly

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