CHESTNUT HILL, Mass. -- This season was supposed to be a turning point for Boston College, a strong offseason of work serving as the hinge from a solid finish to last season to a potential run at an NCAA tournament berth in 2013-14.
With the most returning experience in the ACC, Steve Donahue believed his team was ready to accelerate quickly from its 16-17 (7-11 ACC) finish in 2012-13 that included three straight wins to conclude the regular season and a win in its ACC tournament opener over Georgia Tech.
The fourth-year coach scheduled that way, with the seventh-ranked nonconference strength of schedule in the country, according to ESPN’s Daily RPI calculations.
But injuries -- especially to big man Dennis Clifford, who made his season debut Saturday after missing the first 14 games due to his ailing knees -- and underperformance have resulted in the team spinning its wheels. The Eagles had a 4-10 record as they welcomed Clifford and his chronically cranky hinges back and kicked off their ACC schedule in earnest with a hard-fought 62-60 loss to Clemson.
And though they fell to 4-11 and 0-2 in the league, a poor first half leading to another loss despite a spirited second half, the Eagles got a noticeable boost from the 7-foot-1, 250-pounder.
“He’s a presence that we lack,” Donahue said of Clifford. “There’s probably four or five times in the second half I thought [the Tigers] looked to go to the rim and he just kind of stepped over and they backed it out.
“Obviously that was the plan -- Dennis playing and helping us anchor our defense. I saw bits and pieces of it today. It’s all part of trying to get better each and every day. Dennis is a huge part of our team. I’m encouraged and I’m hoping we can start working him in.”
The Bridgewater, Mass., native and Milton Academy product played in all but three of BC’s games in 2012-13, but wasn’t nearly as effective as a sophomore as he was as a freshman and missed all of this season’s nonconference slate after undergoing offseason surgery in an attempt to relieve pain caused by arthritis in his knees.
Clifford’s stats in his first action of the season were modest, as he didn’t attempt a shot and finished with three rebounds, two turnovers and one blocked shot in 12 minutes of play.
But as is often the case with rim-protecting big men, the stats don’t accurately reflect the impact the player had on his teammates and on the opposition.
“That felt great for me personally, just to see him out there,” BC big man Ryan Anderson said. “We’ve been through a lot of minutes together out there on the court. It’s always good to have somebody that works so hard to be back a part of the team on the court, because he’s done so much for us, talking to us and stuff, off the court. ... It was just awesome.”
Without Clifford, the 6-9 Anderson has been forced to play much more center than is ideal. When Clifford returned to the lineup, Anderson was able to slide to his more natural position at power forward. And that caused some issues for Clemson coach Brad Brownell, who had to adjust accordingly.
“I’m glad to see Clifford playing because it does add a whole other element to their team,” Brownell said. “Protecting the rim, size and length at the rim. And they don’t really have that.”
Though he’s doing all that he can to beat Donahue when they match up, Brownell clearly feels for his fellow coach as he watches the Eagles’ travails from afar.
“It’s hard to find a great point guard and it’s hard to find a big guy that can really protect your basket, and [you find one and] all of a sudden a guy gets hurt and you don’t have one,” Brownell said. “It makes our jobs really tough.”
Perhaps the most frustrating aspect of Clifford’s situation, for all involved but especially for Clifford, is that there really isn’t an injury, per se, to come back from.
“The injury, there is no injury,” Donahue said. “It’s a chronic condition with arthritis, essentially. ... I think he’s learning to deal with it. That’s the bottom line. He’s starting to feel better, starting to realize what his body can do, what it can’t do. And I think he’ll progress because he really does a good job of trying to figure out what he has to do to get himself out on the court.”
The Eagles saw a difference in Clifford in the days leading up to the Clemson matchup, the center jumping into drills in practice and surprising with his mobility.
“I thought he moved well today,” Donahue said. “He’s obviously very rusty, and particularly on the offensive end because he hasn’t played basketball. But I was encouraged for him because he looked like he was moving without thinking about pain.”
As they wade deeper into ACC waters, the Eagles could clearly use Clifford -- especially if he can return to or build on the form he showed his freshman season, when he averaged 8.9 points, 4.7 rebounds, 1.1 assists and 0.9 blocks per game.
But BC can’t know what it will get from Clifford this season, and in fact may still decide to redshirt the big man in 2013-14. Donahue said that choice must be made by next week, and that it’s the player’s decision to make.
“It’s his decision, and I’ll support it whatever he wants,” Donahue said. “I don’t know how it’s going to feel tomorrow. But I thought he had an impact on the game. It’s just amazing how solid you become when you have a 7-1 kid who plays as hard as he does and knows where to be. It covers up a lot of flaws.”
And considering the season the Eagles have had to date, someone to cover up a few flaws is exactly what they need.
Jack McCluskey is an editor for ESPN.com and a frequent contributor to ESPNBoston.com. Follow him on Twitter @jack_mccluskey.