Despite Blowout by Notre Dame, Clifford Shows Signs of Dominance

Dennis Clifford shooting free throw

Down by 15 points just 13 seconds after the halftime break, Boston College men’s basketball (7-8, 0-2 Atlantic Coast) ran a play it goes to fairly often. Point guard Eli Carter brings the ball up the floor, then shuffles it to his left around the perimeter. For about eight seconds, each player in succession runs up to the arc, gets the ball for a moment, and then dishes it back to the next player cutting up.

Eventually, it gets into the hands of center Dennis Clifford at the top of the key. He makes one dribble to his left, then hands the ball off to Carter, who is cutting hard above him. As Carter drives right and Clifford rolls to the hoop, University of Notre Dame big men Zach Auguste and Bonzie Colson are momentarily lost on the switch, giving Clifford just enough room to lay it in when Carter feeds him. Auguste, however, recovers in time to get a slight piece of Clifford’s layup—a play on which Clifford wanted a whistle for interference, but he didn’t get the call, or the basket.

That was just about the only thing that didn’t go Clifford’s way—the 7-footer went 4-for-5 from the field and 5-for-5 from the line—but it echoed the rest of BC’s shooting night. In a game when Eli Carter didn’t have it—he went 4-for-14, only reaching double figures by nailing two 3-pointers in garbage time, yet somehow took home ‘Player of the Game’ by PA announcer Andy Jick—and Jerome Robinson didn’t have it—he went 3-for-11, only getting to double digits by hitting all five of his free throws—Clifford’s effort made no difference. Notre Dame (10-4, 1-1 Atlantic Coast) countered BC’s abysmal shooting performance with a superb one, wrapping up a quick 82-54 rout in well under two hours.

Even if Clifford didn’t get recognition for being BC’s best on the night, he has gotten his share of compliments for his play of late. Just last Saturday, after watching his center, Marshall Plumlee, get held in check, Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski took nearly two minutes out of a 10-minute presser to talk about Clifford, stopping just short of breaking into an ode.

“I can remember coming up here a few years ago, Clifford could hardly walk,” Krzyzewski said. “What he’s done … he must have done a lot of stuff, because he moves well [now]. I admire that, that kid’s commitment.”

If you’ve paid any attention to BC men’s basketball in the last five years, then you should know the story of Dennis Clifford. Even if you haven’t gone through the entire odyssey, a quick skim through the CliffsNotes gives you the idea: a 7-foot freshman stud put up a great rookie campaign, only to be hampered with two years of playing through and recovering from injuries on both legs.

He returned to the court last winter, healthy but rusty. Each strong post move seemed like a step forward, only to drift two back with a turnover or loose defense inside. He surpassed general expectations by returning to the court, but he wasn’t the force BC needed to compete against the likes of Duke’s Jahlil Okafor or Syracuse’s Rakeem Christmas. It wasn’t really fair to ask him to be.

Yet in Clifford’s last season at BC this year, the Eagles have to ask even more of him. With the departure of Eddie Odio, Will Magarity, and John Cain Carney, BC was left with just three men over 6-foot-7 for 2015-16: freshman Johncarlos Reyes, who hasn’t seen many minutes at all; redshirt freshman Idy Diallo, who looks generally lost during his handful of minutes every game; and Clifford.

This season—Clifford’s last at BC—it looks like the big man is finally back. He isn’t putting up 20-and-10s or taking over games, but he has finally begun to surpass the mark of 9.1 points a game he put up as a freshman. While the Eagles lost to Notre Dame by 28 with an average +/- of -16, Clifford’s was just -9 points—10 fewer than his backup Diallo—showing how valuable Clifford is to BC right now.

That isn’t to say he’s developed into the perfect veteran player. With just under four minutes left in the first half, the Eagles had just capped off a 9-2 run with a 3-pointer from A.J. Turner, slimming Notre Dame’s lead to five. On the next two plays, Colson beat Clifford inside for a layup and Clifford then gave Notre Dame back the ball with an offensive foul.

And of course, it’s easy to notice Clifford when he bobbles a pass inside and loses the ball out of bounds. It’s not as easy to notice the textbook box-out, energetic rebound, and strong pass upcourt that allowed Robinson to knock down a 15-footer before the defense set up. But it was there.

Even while Clifford makes small plays like these, proving his worth in leading by example, Christian saw a hole in the leadership of his team against Notre Dame—and not from elder statesmen like Clifford or Carter.

“[Carter] shouldn’t have to be a leader,” Christian said. “He’s a fifth-year player. He’s got 15 games here. The guys who should be the leaders are the young guys. They should be leaders. They should be trying to change the culture of our program, and I thought, as a group, collectively, they did nothing to do that tonight.”

Christian didn’t downplay Carter’s struggles on the night—he had four costly turnovers to go with 10 missed shots—but a certain lack of effort was obvious, especially in the last 10 minutes. No whistles blew for about six or seven minutes and no BC player picked up more than two fouls. The team wasn’t playing smarter and it lacked in aggression.

BC’s defense can be cut some slack for its performance in the past two games, in which it has given up 82 points to Duke and 81 to Notre Dame, since those two offenses currently rank first and third, respectively, in terms of adjusted offensive efficiency, according to kenpom.com. But the Eagles will need to see the improvement Christian is looking for from his younger players soon to have a shot at playing with more balanced ACC squads.

Featured Image by Drew Hoo / Heights Editor

About Alec Greaney 98 Articles
Retired. But you can probably still follow him on Twitter @AlecGreaney.