Houston coach said key to facing Virginia is Kihei Clark going into historical top-5 matchup

By Jerry Ratcliffe

Photo: University of Houston Athletics

Dropping from the nation’s No. 1 ranking after losing at home to Alabama last weekend, Houston coach Kelvin Sampson hasn’t talked to his fifth-ranked Cougars about the opportunities that lie ahead at No. 2 Virginia on Saturday (2 p.m., ESPN2).

Certainly, knocking off the Cavaliers would be a worthy pelt in the nation’s biggest matchup of the weekend. Houston is the highest-ranked nonconference opponent to ever play in Charlottesville, attracting a sellout crowd at John Paul Jones Arena.

Sampson’s focus isn’t on opportunities. It’s squarely on playing unbeaten Virginia.

“[Virginia is] so hard to prepare for, but they’re not hard to scout because they don’t do anything earth-shattering, which is so hard to play against because they’re so disciplined and so well-coached,” Sampson said in a Zoom conference Thursday. “So, I really haven’t focused on the opportunity. I’ve just been so immersed in studying [UVA]. I have such an appreciation and respect for Tony [Bennett], that’s been our main focus.”

Much of Sampson’s research on the Cavaliers has been personnel and stylistic changes from when the two teams met last year in Houston, a lopsided 67-47 Cougars win. Sampson is the first to admit that he expects to see a different UVA team on Saturday.

“Last year, Virginia had new guys in a new system, but I mean they’re humming on all cylinders now,” Sampson said of the 8-0 Cavaliers.

Houston manhandled UVA last year. The Cougars were more physical, more athletic, more dominating. Bennett’s team is a year older, one of the most experienced teams in the country, which returned 91.4 percent of its scoring from last season, most among all Division-I teams, plus added some nice pieces in grad transfer Ben Vander Plas from Ohio U., and talented freshmen Ryan Dunn and Isaac McKneely.

“They’ve got an outstanding team and really don’t have a lot of holes,” Sampson said of Virginia. “I think their greatest strength is their experience. They’ve got five starters back, then they’ve got a big off the bench in (7-footer Francisco) Caffaro and a 6-11 slim kid (Kadin Shedrick).

Kihei Clark scores two of his game-high 18 points against FSU. (Photo by Jon Golden)

“But the key is [fifth-year point guard] Kihei Clark. He’s a kid that started on that Final Four team that seems like 10 years ago. This is his fifth year starting. It’s a great luxury for Tony to have because [Clark] drives the show.”

Sampson said he loves UVA’s other point guard (Bennett plays two at the same time) in junior Reece Beekman, who remained questionable this week as he recovers from an ankle and hamstring problem.

“We actually recruited Reece out of high school and summer basketball,” Sampson said. “He comes from a tremendous family. He’s a state champion high-school player. He’s a warrior.”

Then there’s another guard/wing in Armaan Franklin, who started the season hot in terms of shooting and scoring but has since cooled.

“Franklin, I think in a lot of ways, represents their ceiling,” Sampson said. “They had to be elated with the way he played in Vegas against those teams (then-No. 5 Baylor and then-No. 18 Illinois). He’s probably the best shooter, best offensive player in the backcourt, but they fit together so well.”

Last but not least among Virginia’s starters is forward Jayden Gardner, who Sampson is beyond tired of seeing. Before transferring to UVA last season, Gardner was a force to be reckoned with while at East Carolina, a conference foe that faced Houston twice annually.

“Gardner has given us nightmares for five years and hopefully we won’t have to see him again,” the Houston coach said. “He’s a tough matchup. He couldn’t have picked a better school that would fit him because of the way they play.”

Gardner, who once posted 29 points and 19 rebounds in a 10-point ECU loss to Houston, managed to score only four points and grab two rebounds in that UVA loss at Houston last season.

While all those parts add up to a difficult challenge, Sampson narrowed it down rather simply.

“It’s hard to say it comes down to one guy, but everything always points to Clark,” Sampson said. “They’re experienced in their system, well-coached and disciplined, and then they force you to play mistake-free basketball because they don’t make mistakes.”

Houston is a 1.5-point favorite, according to Caesars Sportsbook, as of Friday afternoon.