Teel: Kihei Clark has been essential to UVA's success, and fans should applaud his return |  College Sports

Teel: Kihei Clark has been essential to UVA’s success, and fans should applaud his return | College Sports

David Teel

Next basketball season, more than 300 young men and women will compete for ACC teams. Only one will have the status in his home arena to say: “See the national championship banner up there in the rafters? I was a part of that and have the ring to prove it.”

Virginia’s Kihei Clark is the one.

As a freshman, he was an essential component of the Cavaliers’ 2019 title run. As a fifth-year senior, he will lead a core that includes UVA’s top six scorers from last season.

Yet some Virginia faithful view Clark’s return for his COVID bonus year, which the program announced last week, as a liability. They say he’s too short, too flawed offensively and will impede younger teammates’ development.

Alas, few players this accomplished have been as polarizing among fans as Clark. But those who view his presence in 2022-23 as a problem should ask one central question:

Do you trust Tony Bennett?

Preparing for his 14th season at UVA, Bennett is among seven active head coaches to have won a national championship. He, Dean Smith and Mike Krzyzewski are the only coaches in ACC men’s basketball history to guide their programs to at least 11 consecutive winning conference seasons.

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If Bennett believed Clark would compromise this very promising team, if he feared Clark would not work tirelessly to improve, if he suspected for a moment that Clark would not embrace incoming freshmen such as Isaac McKneely and Ryan Dunn, there’s no chance he would have welcomed Clark back.

And make no mistake: These are joint decisions. Clark didn’t just stroll into Bennett’s office and reveal his intentions. Clark’s fifth season is a clear sign of mutual trust and commitment.

Much of the negativity surrounding Clark’s return is rooted in recency bias.

The Cavaliers in 2022 failed to make the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2013. In their regular-season home finale, Clark missed 13 of 16 shots in a 64-63 setback against Florida State. In their 52-51 NIT quarterfinal loss to St. Bonaventure, Clark went 0 for 7 from the field, the seventh attempt a floater that Osun Osunniyi blocked as time expired.

Gutting as those defeats and performances were, they hardly define Clark’s career.

He’s already among five Cavaliers with at least 1,000 points and 500 assists in his career. The others are John Crotty, Sean Singletary, London Perrantes and Donald Hand.

Though only 5-foot-9, Clark is among the ACC’s best on-the-ball defenders, a cornerstone of Bennett’s defense-first approach. His assist-to-turnover ratio has been 2.0 or better three times in his four seasons.

Barring injury, and in large measure due to longevity, Clark will set UVA career standards for games, starts, minutes and assists. He’ll rank among the program’s top 10 in career free-throw percentage.

No doubt, his size can be problematic. And yes, his shooting is erratic, witness his career accuracy of 38.3% overall and 34.8% beyond the 3-point arc.

But consider the clutch moments, beyond the absurdly instinctive and poised assist to Mamadi Diakite that forced overtime in the 2019 Elite Eight against Purdue.

With top-seeded UVA trailing 16th-seeded Gardner-Webb by nine points late in the first half of the 2019 NCAA tournament, and everyone flashing back to UMBC a year earlier, Clark’s 3-pointer drew the Cavaliers within 36-30 at intermission. Two games later, in the Sweet 16 versus Oregon, his tying 3-pointer ignited a late 8-0 binge that carried Virginia to a 53-49 victory.

Clark earned third-team All-ACC honors as a sophomore, his decisive 3s against Virginia Tech and Louisville spurring UVA to a second-place conference finish, despite the offseason departures of Ty Jerome, Kyle Guy and De’Andre Hunter.

Clark has been honorable mention all-league each of the last two years, and during his career the Cavaliers are 56-19 in ACC regular-season play. None of Virginia’s rivals can boast as many conference victories during that span, and the Cavaliers are the only program to have a winning ACC record each of the last four years.

More decorated players have headlined those UVA teams, but rest assured, Clark’s contributions on both ends of the floor have been prominent, and will continue to be.

“The Virginia men’s basketball program is built on guys with an underdog mentality who go out and lay it on the line every single time they step onto the court,” graduate assistant coach Isaiah Wilkins tweeted last week. “Without a doubt, Kihei Clark embodies all of that and more — so glad to see him in the UVA jersey one more season.”

Next season will be the fourth time in the last 40 years that Virginia returns its top six scorers. The others were 1990-91, 2000-01 and 2006-07, NCAA tournament teams all.

Blend Jayden Gardner, Reece Beekman, Armaan Franklin, Kadin Shedrick, Francisco Caffaro and Clark with four freshmen and Ohio transfer Ben Vander Plas, and you have a squad capable of ACC and national contention.

Given the conference’s schedule rotation, that squad likely will mark Senior Day at John Paul Jones Arena on March 4 against Louisville. Kihei Clark will deserve the loudest ovation of all.

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