By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE – As a senior last season at Taft Charter High in Los Angeles, point guard Kihei Clark shot 41 percent from 3-point range, made 81 percent of his free throws, and averaged 19.4 points and 7.2 assists per game.
At the University of Virginia, Clark has flashed those offensive skills in practices and in scrimmages against Richmond and Villanova. But what’s really endeared him to head coach Tony Bennett is Clark’s defensive tenacity.
“He’s a pest,” Bennett said. “He gets after the ball. He’s quick and he’s strong, though he’s smaller. But his on-ball defense [is outstanding]. I haven’t coached a lot of guys like him that can really pick up [anywhere on the court].”
At a UVA practice over the summer, junior guard Ty Jerome grew so annoyed by Clark’s pressure that he threw the basketball at the 5-9, 155-pound freshman’s head.
“That means he got under Ty’s skin, so he was doing his job,” said Bennett, who laughed as he recounted the story early this semester.
Reminded last week of that episode, UVA guard Kyle Guy couldn’t resist a jab at his close friend and classmate.
“I didn’t know Ty was so mentally weak, and you can tell him I said that,” Guy said, smiling.
Guy continued in a more serious vein. “Actually, that’s what Kihei brings, and that’s going to be big for us. He’ll pick up full-court, and he’s really going to bother a lot of people and get some [deflections]. He’s been a problem in practice defensively, and I think he’s really going to help us.”
So does Jerome. “He’ll definitely add a lot to our defense and our offense,” Jerome said. “His energy doing whatever his role is this year will be tremendous for us.”
The Cavaliers’ 10th season under Bennett starts Tuesday night. At 7 o’clock, UVA, ranked No. 5 in the preseason Associated Press poll, hosts Towson at John Paul Jones Arena.
Virginia’s trademark Pack Line defense has stymied countless opponents during Bennett’s tenure. Most recently, the Wahoos led the nation in scoring defense last season. Rarely, though, has Bennett had an on-the-ball defender as dogged as Clark.
Jontel Evans excelled in that role on Bennett’s first four teams at Virginia, and graduate transfer Nigel Johnson had some good moments last season.
“They’re all a little bit different,” Bennett said, “but [each has] that kind of tenacity and ability to pester the ball and ignite the guys behind them. On-ball, [Clark is] willing and aggressive and talented in that regard, and he’s getting better off the ball.”
As a guard with the NBA’s Charlotte Hornets, Bennett recalled, he had to battle 5-3 Muggsy Bogues in practice, “so I know that someone who’s up under you and always doing that can be a problem.”
The Pack Line can be effective even if the perimeter players aren’t outstanding defenders individually. But having a guard such as Clark who “can apply pressure or heat or activity on the ball,” Bennett said, makes the defense that much tougher.
“We always liken it to a quarterback in the pocket,” Bennett said. “If he can window-shop and has time, he’ll be able to dissect and pick apart a defense. But if he’s rushed a little bit or feels pressure, it changes everything, and that’s a big part of it for all of our guys.”
When he’s able to force the opposing point guard to pass the ball in the backcourt, Clark said, “that’s a great feeling for me, just knowing I could disrupt their offense early on.”
He originally planned to play his college ball at UC Davis, which received a non-binding commitment from Clark in May 2017. After a summer in which his play piqued Bennett’s interest, however, Clark decided to re-open his recruitment.
“I wanted to see how high I could play,” he said.
Georgia Tech, Gonzaga and UCLA were among the schools that showed varying degrees of interest in Clark, he said, “but once Coach Bennett came in contact with me, he was on me from the jump. So that’s what intrigued me the most.”
At 6-5, Jerome towers above Clark, but they’re probably equally competitive. When they’re matched against each other in practice, Jerome said, “It’s fun. It’s a good challenge.”
On offense, Jerome said, “I usually I play to my strengths, so I come off screens, I use my size and shoot over him.”
At the other end of the floor, Jerome said, his strategy is “to try to keep [Clark] out of the paint, try to beat ball screens when I’m guarding him. It forces you to stay close to someone who’s so quick and low to the ground.”
During the summer, when practices ended, Guy, Jerome and forward De’Andre Hunter, a 6-7 redshirt sophomore, would stay on the court and play one-on-one against each other.
“Kihei always hopped in,” Guy said. “He’s not scared of anything. That’s a lot of experience, and even I’m taller and bigger than [Clark]. It takes a lot of courage and grit to just be fine with going up against that.”
Clark, whose father, Malik, played basketball at the University of Hawaii at Hilo, arrived at UVA in June and began the process of adjusting to the college game.
“I think I’ve definitely grown,” Clark said, “just learning the offense and being able to pick when to shoot and when to pass.”
His hometown of Woodland Hills, Calif., is nearly 2,600 miles from Charlottesville, but that didn’t faze Clark. Like another point guard from L.A., London Perrantes, who was a four-year starter at Virginia, Clark couldn’t pass up the opportunity to play for Bennett and test himself in the ACC.
“It’s a long way from home, but basketball is what I wanted to do,” said Clark, whose parents and brothers are in town for the opener. “My family and I knew that distance wasn’t going to matter.”
Clark, who lives with teammate Jayden Nixon, said the Cavaliers are “a close-knit family. These guys are my brothers, so they help with me [being far from home].”
From a team that swept the ACC’s regular-season and tournament titles in 2017-18, Virginia returned its starting guards, Kyle and Jerome, as well as Hunter, the conference’s Sixth Man of the Year.
His goal since joining the program, Clark said, has been to break into the backcourt rotation.
“I knew I had to prove myself,” he said. “I feel like anywhere you go, you’re going to have to compete. So I knew I was going to come in and compete for a spot. Whether I started or not, that didn’t matter to me. I just wanted to contribute right away to the team.”