Optimism ignited by Perry's fiery play
He typically wears a smile as wide as his beefy upper torso. It rests there casually but consistently, like a favorite cap. He's not so much the gentle giant as a jocular one.
Such is what we've learned in the handful of months that Chris "Skippy" Perry has resided on USF's campus: He seems as comfortable in his skin as he does his surname.
"I'm kind of always upbeat unless something really bad goes on," said the Bulls' 6-foot-8 1/2, 256-pound freshman. "But other than that I'm pretty happy."
Alas, this gregarious behemoth comes equipped with figurative control knob, like a dimmer switch. Gradually, it transforms passivity into aggressiveness, frivolity into fire. To this day, the Bulls' staff continues adjusting it for maximum effect.
If Tuesday's upset of SMU is any sign, Coach Stan Heath has nearly found the ideal setting.
Flustered and mostly ineffective in his prior three contests, Perry responded with his best game of the season (18 points, eight rebounds) in USF's 78-71 triumph.
A wide-screen model of centrifugal force, Perry got low in the block, exploded vertically, and employed his agility and girth to assert himself. A 50-percent free-throw shooter entering the game, he also converted six of seven from the stripe.
"He's got a switch and he's got a gear where he really gets riled up and you've seen it. He's gotten a technical foul in one game (at Temple) and he got upset a few other games," Heath said.
"It's kind of one of those things where you don't want him to snap all the way around. It's like the furnace in your house; you want it to heat up your house, but you don't want to burn the house down."
Bringing the house down is another matter.
Tuesday night's Sun Dome atmosphere, despite a modest crowd (3,407), was the season's liveliest. The ongoing evolution of Perry (9.5 ppg, 5.7 rpg) is critical in maintaining USF's home-court advantage and postseason aspirations.
Perhaps even more critical, in a way, than the offensive development of 6-10 classmate and
road-trip roommate John Egbunu.
"John (7.5 rebounds in conference play) gives you something defensively where you just kind
of know what you're getting," Heath said. "Every game, whether he gets three blocks or none,
he's still changing and affecting things around the rim."
Perry, to this point, hasn't been as steady since the new year dawned. Facing less formidable opposition in a bulk of non-conference play, Perry teased Bulls constituents, posting two double-doubles and coming within a rebound of two more.
"Chris had the ability just to kind of lay things up without exploding and jumping," Heath said.
Then, the opponents got stronger, sleeker, more savvy. In his three games prior to Tuesday, Perry had totaled 18 points.
But as his SMU effort revealed, USF's fortunes can alter dramatically if Perry can maintain his edge and continue acclimating to the speed and physical nature of Division I basketball. An inside offensive presence, after all, can widen outside opportunities.
"In high school, he probably didn't face many 6-8 guys that could jump and were as big as him," Heath said. "And now he's facing that every single game and guys are two or three years older, so that's an adjustment in itself."
Equally critical, coaches and teammates say, is ferocity accompanying the physicality. The former doesn't seem to come naturally to a kid whose full nickname is Skippy Walnuts, an old video-game chum's online ID that Perry embraced as his own.
"Sometimes he gets mad but he doesn't keep it for a while, because he's happy all the time,"
senior Victor Rudd said. "I mean, it's a good thing but you want him to have that kind of
mean streak in him."
Perry said he had it the moment he woke up Tuesday, shortly after 8 a.m. Inspired by a pep-talk phone call from his mom just before his 9 a.m. study hall, he embarked on the day bent on emerging from his mini-slump.
The resolve was simmering during pregame warmups, when Perry dunked everything.
"It transferred over to the game and he finished strong," Rudd said.
Now, the key going forward is for Heath to somehow bottle up that resolve, to keep the precise setting on that proverbial switch, to stoke Perry's inner fire without leaving burns on the team.
"He's had a little bit of ups and downs in the last couple of ball games, but sometimes when that happens, guys continue to go down the slide," Heath said. "I think he found a way to pick himself up and play at a high level again."