Second-Year Point Guard Kihei Clark Is Embracing His Increased Responsibility In 2019-20
By Brad Franklin
It will go down as one of the most beautiful, most improbable plays not just in Virginia basketball history, but perhaps in the history of college hoops as a whole.
Kihei Clark raced into the backcourt to corral the tipped rebound off Ty Jerome’s missed free throw, dribbled ahead about 10 feet short of midcourt and then fired a one-handed pass to Mamadi Diakite. And with Diakite’s made jumper, UVA forced overtime in the Elite Eight and eventually beat Purdue on the way to the Final Four and a national championship.
But while Jerome, De’Andre Hunter and Kyle Guy moved on to the NBA last spring following UVA’s title run, a host of Cavaliers were tasked with putting together an encore this season.
And perhaps no player has had to carry the weight of that reality like Clark, a 5-9, 163-pound dynamo who went from first-year revelation in support last season to second-year stalwart seemingly in the blink of an eye.
“He has such a load on his plate,” head coach Tony Bennett said of Clark after UVA’s 63-58 win at Georgia Tech Jan. 18, during which Clark notched seven assists compared to just two turnovers while playing all 40 minutes. “He has to do so much. I think at times, he’s played like a warrior and been remarkable. And, of course, there’s times that he hasn’t played his best, but he’s got to do that.”
The Woodland Hills, Calif., native averaged 4.5 points, 2.6 assists (second on the team behind Jerome) and 2.3 rebounds per game while shooting 34.1 percent from deep in his rookie season. He ended up playing nearly 27 minutes per game and started 20 of UVA’s 38 contests.
Through 18 games this season, Clark was putting up 9.6 points, 5.9 assists and 4.3 boards per contest — a performance that drew praise from his head coach.
“Some guys have been thrust into spots that probably we weren’t planning on,” Bennett said after the victory versus the Yellow Jackets. “I thought [Clark] was tough tonight, as were other guys, and it was good to see that.”
Clark’s path to UVA and making that play against Purdue in the South Regional Final isn’t exactly common. Heading into his final summer of AAU basketball, the then junior guard was committed to UC Davis and had no clue that one day he’d be logging major minutes in the Atlantic Coast Conference.
But a fateful decision — to switch AAU programs and play on Nike’s vaunted Elite Youth Basketball League (EYBL) circuit — changed his life forever.
“Being a basketball junkie, you grow up watching the ACC,” he recalled. “You grow up watching Duke, North Carolina, Virginia and those teams. You watch those guys and those names, and so it’s always a dream to play at the highest level. I wouldn’t say that it wasn’t something I thought about, but I just never knew if I would make it to that level. In my situation, I never really took it seriously, to be honest.
“After we played in Peach Jam that year, I decided to decommit from UC Davis because I got interest from some bigger schools, and that was the whole reason I chose to play in the EYBL that year anyway. I just wanted to kind of prove to myself that I could play at that level and play against some of the best guys in the country. I decommitted so I could explore my options because I thought maybe I committed a little early.
“I want to say it was three months later, some time at least, when Coach Bennett got in touch with me and said they had been watching my team because of the other point guard we had, James Akinjo. But coach really liked my game and since I was committed then, he didn’t want to pursue me. Then when I was open and we got in touch, it was a couple of days and it all happened pretty fast.”
Clark had gone from the prospect of playing college hoops in his home state to now being more than 2,000 miles away in Charlottesville. His father, Malik, had played Division II basketball at the University of Hawai’i Hilo, so it stands to reason that Clark and his family understood why he was making such a big move.
His enduring earliest memory of arriving on Grounds, though, wasn’t just about basketball, at least not at first.
“It was pretty empty,” he said with a laugh. “It was summer and it was real humid and I wasn’t used to all that. But for real, it was the intensity. From the first day of workouts, it was the intensity.
“Guys were just so focused and really locked in. You could kind of feel that in the air and if you didn’t match that, you weren’t going to be able to keep up. It was clear from the start last summer that we had to go.
“He gets after it. This is a whole different role for him and he’s trying desperately, as everyone is, to win and I don’t ever question his heart. I think he’s got a lot on his plate trying to make plays, take shots, score.” — Head coach Tony Bennett on Clark
“Making that decision to come to UVA, we knew the distance would be big, but it didn’t really matter that much to me and my family,” Clark added. “I mean, I was going across the country to play at the highest level of college basketball. My dad’s a basketball junkie as well, so it didn’t bother him at all either. I didn’t really get homesick. All I did was play basketball and go to class.
“So those first few months I was just too focused on getting better and working my way into the scheme of things and trying to contribute as much as possible. I didn’t know how much I was going to play at first, but I just worked. I wanted a chance to contribute to the team. That’s where my focus was and all I really wanted to work on.”
Bennett’s system, and even to some extent Virginia’s culture, isn’t for the faint of heart. Not to mention, Clark joined the program at a time when expectations couldn’t be greater and the Hoos were coming off a crushing NCAA Tournament loss to UMBC. Those first few practices, one might have expected, were intense.
“Coach Bennett, this program, it demands a lot of you,” Clark said. “It’s not easy to play here. It’s really hard. Just learning the defense and the schemes, getting yourself accustomed to the culture. That was key.
“Coach was a point guard himself so he definitely expects and demands a lot from his point guards. He’s a tough coach, but that’s how he gets the best out of you. It’s no secret, really. You have to do the work.”
The drive to put in that work was real then and even more so during this past offseason when, on the heels of a national title, Clark and Co. knew they had to grow up.
“I think playing with a guy like Ty, that helped tremendously,” Clark explained. “I think I had the best point guard in the country on my team. So going against him in practice every day definitely helped me a lot. He knew things — little things on offense and on defense — that I needed to know and that he could help me out with.
“Yeah, we’re the reigning national champions but the players that left, they carried the load last year,” he added. “This year, it’s an opportunity for guys like Braxton [Key] and Mamadi, me, Jay [Huff] to kind of step into the spotlight and just show what we can do.
“It’s not that we don’t think of the national championship run, but we know what it took to get there. [We’re] trying to lead the young guys so that we can make a run again.”
“He gets after it,” Bennett said of Clark following UVA’s 63-55 overtime loss to Syracuse Jan. 11. “This is a whole different role for him and he’s trying desperately, as everyone is, to win and I don’t ever question his heart.
“I think he’s got a lot on his plate trying to make plays, take shots, score. You can point at a couple of his turnovers there, he isn’t going to play a perfect game, as no one will. He feels it and he knows it. He wants it bad and I think at times he is doing some really good things. And at times, sure, he’s making some second-year mistakes, but there is a lot of attention on him and we need him on the floor.”
This was the kind of spot a contemplative Clark envisioned the night in September when Virginia hung its national title banner. That evening, with “The Big Three” (Hunter, Jerome and Guy) back in town as the players all received their championship rings, Clark was doing his best to look forward.
“Nah,” he said simply when asked if it was hard to remain hungry. “I was a first-year last year playing along with three NBA guys and then Mamadi and Jack [Salt].
“I was the young buck and I’m not even going to say I’m the vet this year, but I’ve had one year under my belt so I’m a little bit more experienced than those guys. I’m still a second-year, still learning as much as they are. I’m still motivated and I can’t wait to get back on the court.”
In between games on the road in the ACC this season, his mentality hasn’t changed.
“It’s a new team, a new year,” Clark said in January. “So you don’t think about it too often. I’m kind of trying to live in the moment right now and worry about this team and what we can accomplish with these guys.
“… I wouldn’t say it was tough to turn the page, but I knew the responsibility that I was stepping into. So I would say I was more excited and eager to learn, just taking one step at a time.”
After snapping a three-game ACC losing streak with a 63-58 win at Georgia Tech Jan. 18, UVA had steadied the ship a bit heading into the back portion of its regular-season schedule.
The Hoos tipped off the season in Syracuse with a win and then tacked on six more victories in a row before falling 69-40 at Purdue in an ACC/Big Ten Challenge matchup Dec. 4. Following a 56-47 win over North Carolina four days later — their second league victory of the young season — and then a win over Stony Brook, the Hoos fell 70-59 at home to South Carolina. It was the program’s first non-conference home loss since December 2017.
UVA bounced back against Navy before crushing Virginia Tech 65-39 to start 2020 on the right foot. But a pair of road losses to Boston College and then-No. 9 Florida State sandwiched a 63-55 overtime loss to Syracuse at home.
The Cavaliers were unable to maintain their momentum from the win over Georgia Tech and were edged 53-51 by NC State at home Jan. 20 to fall to 12-6 overall and 4-4 in the league. UVA fell out of the national rankings and found themselves in a three-way tie for seventh place in the ACC, one game behind three teams that were tied for fourth.
Virginia, of course, lost three future NBA players in De’Andre Hunter, Ty Jerome and Kyle Guy. If that wasn’t hard enough, they lost fourth-year guard Braxton Key for three full games during the holidays due to a broken left wrist that required surgery. He played sparingly in a home win over Stony Brook Dec. 18 before returning in full in the loss to South Carolina.
After the loss to NC State, the Wahoos ranked second nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency, allowing an NCAA-low 49.7 points per game. They also were second nationally in both fewest field goals allowed (324) and field goal percentage (35.8).
Through 18 games, the Cavaliers were led in scoring by redshirt fourth-year forward Mamadi Diakite, who was putting up 13.6 points per game to go with 6.7 rebounds per night. Despite missing time, Key was second on the team in scoring with 9.8 points per game to go with a team-high 7.2 rebounds per outing.
At 9.6 points per game, second-year point guard Kihei Clark was third in scoring while also dishing out 5.9 assists per game, which was fourth best in the ACC. In addition, redshirt third-year forward Jay Huff was averaging 8.9 points, 6.0 boards and 1.6 blocks, which was sixth most in the league just ahead of Diakite’s 1.3 (eighth).
The schedule going forward looked tough, with four matchups against the top three teams in the league standings. UVA has a home-and-home against first-place Louisville, and home games versus second-place Florida State and third-place Duke.
— Brad Franklin