Kihei is Virginia’s “little big man” on the floor during 3-0 run

By Jerry Ratcliffe

kihei clark wake

ERIN EDGERTON/THE DAILY PROGRESS Virginia Cavaliers guard Kihei Clark (0) looks for an opening during a game against the Wake Forest Demon Deacons on Jan. 6 at John Paul Jones Area. UVa defeated Wake Forest 70-61.

Being the free-spirited guy that he his, seven-foot Jay Huff was kidding around about how he and the shortest guy on the team, 5-foot-9 Kihei Clark, have been tearing it up down in the paint.

“Kihei has been doing a lot of work in the post recently, so we’ve been practing one-on-one against each other,” Huff giggled under his breath. “I’ve been giving [Clark] a few pointers.”

While Huff’s comments were tongue-in-cheek after he and Clark had given Boston College fits in a 61-49 Virginia win, there was some truth to his playfulness.

Clark, now in his third year at point guard, has been on fire in helping the Cavaliers to a 3-0 start in ACC play. The diminutive Californian was catching heat from a segment of UVA’s fan base after he struggled out of the blocks, and was uncharactheristically loose with the rock in a blowout loss to No. 1 Gonzaga, but still scored 19 points.

The turnovers, particularly the early ones against the unbeaten Zags, had a snowball effect in Virginia getting buried by an avalanche of Gonzaga transition baskets.

Yes, he had a bad game. Yes, last season he got off to a rocky start but ended up being praised as one of the best point guards from sea to shining sea.

If you’re not on the Kihei love train, get over it. He’s a warrior and one of the most important cogs in this Wahoo machine if Virginia is to live up to preseason hype.

“I saw and heard some of the flak my main man was catching,” said UVA associate head coach Jason Williford recently. “Kihie is not our issue.”

Indeed.

That was a couple of weeks ago, coming out of UVA’s ACC opener at Notre Dame where Clark was a royal thorn in the Irish’ saddle. Since then, Tony Bennett has double downed on Clark and the tough-minded junior has delivered.

Yes, the smallest guy on the floor has been one of the most effective and efficient guys in the paint to help preseason ACC favorite Virginia atop the league standings.

“Because Sam (Hauser) and Jay (Huff) open up the paint, that allows Kihei to attack the paint,” Williford said. “I call him ‘little big man’ because he thinks he’s a big guy.”

Bennett chuckled when he heard about Huff talking about giving tips to Clark about playing in the paint, and responded with a jab of his own.

“You’ll have to ask Kihei if he’s getting tips from Jay or is he giving Jay tips,” Bennett smiled.

Whatever the case, it has been effective and lethal to opposing defenses.

Over the Cavaliers’ three-game win streak against conference competition, Clark’s numbers have been eye-popping.

At Notre Dame, he scored 19 points, dished 5 assists with no turnovers in 38 minutes. Against Wake Forest: 10 points, 3 turnovers, 3 assists and never came out of the game (40 minutes). At BC: 12 points, 3 assists, 1 turnover, and again, 40 minutes.

During that stretch, Clark has connected on 64 percent of his field goal attempts (18 of 28), and the majority of those buckets have come in the paint, which also explains for the high percentage shooting.

In UVA’s win at BC over the weekend, all six of his baskets were inside the paint, including back-to-back short jumpers that got the Cavaliers kick-started in the second half runaway.

Notre Dame coach Mike Brey said Monday that the Irish’ inability to keep Clark out of the lane in the first game caused his defense to break down time and time again. Certainly that will be a huge point of emphasis for Notre Dame when they return visit to Virginia this Wednesday afternoon (4:30).

“[Kihei] was really good in that game,” Bennett said Monday. “He really put a lot of pressure on [Notre Dame], move driving, not as much scoring in the post. Anytime you can put pressure on the paint, whether it’s draw and kick or do things that you want, Kihei’s quickness was good, and he backed it up with good decisions. Kihei has been solid.”

Most of the criticism Clark has received over the past couple of years, some of it warranted, has been turnovers and penetrating so far into the paint that he gets trapped and throws an untimely pass or forces up a bad shot.

However, he has more than made up for those mistakes and as Bennett mentioned is now making wider decisions that is leading to buckets, not turnovers.

“Some of [Clark’s activity in the paint] is certainly by design,” Bennett said. “There’s opportunities and we work hard on that. And some of it just happens in the game. We didn’t do that as much last year.”

A lot of it is personnel driven, as Williford mentioned about Hauser’s and Huff’s ability to spread the floor with their shooting ability.

“You always look at your personnel and say how can we be most efficient,” Bennett said. “It is a bit unconventional but we’re different this year with who can space the floor and who can go inside in the post, score with their backs to the basket moves, or make plays for others in there, or make plays for yourself.

“Again, penetration and inside-out basketball comes in a lot of different ways. Sometimes it’s a post ready, sometimes it’s just off the drive, but you do have to get some inside-out attack, whether it’s guards or not.”

When Bennett worked as an assistant under Bo Rein at Wisconsin, Rein had an offense he called “the Swing,” which was inverted a lot with the guards getting touches in the post, making plays for themselves and others.

“At times that’s effective,” Bennett said. “You think Kihei is obviously undersized, but he’s done some good stuff in there and kind of what the defensive gives you. That’s game to game.”

Clark has been a warrior for Bennett, at first playing some point with Ty Jerome in Clark’s first year, then taking over last year without a scholarship back up. Now, he’s getting some help from freshman Reece Beekman, sharing the load, but still clocking lots of minutes.

Bennett admits that he has put a lot of Clark’s plate the past two seasons, particularly last year in running the offense, distributing the ball, having pressure to score on a team that lacked a lot of offense, then disrupting the opponent’s offense by playing pitbull-ish, on ball defense against the other team’s point man.

Clark doesn’t mind the pressure, the minutes. He’s battling the whole time he’s on the floor, and enjoying some of the new in the paint moments.

“Being a point guard, you got to take care of the ball, so I’m just trying to be conscious and just be more sound as Coach Bennett calls it,” Clark said. “I’m just trying to pick my spots in the offense when we’re in three-game and we have two guys on the wing and me. Sam and Jay are moving around.

“You can get catches anywhere in the middle, so whether it’s up top or in the post, once I get in the post, I just take my time and I’m just trying to work on it. We work on it a lot in practice.”

Clark and Bennett call that strategy “the playmaker spot,” where Clark is trying to pick his spots, which demands him being aggressive and taking what the defense gives him.

You can bet that Notre Dame has been studying Clark’s new role this week and will be hell bent on preventing him from ravaging the Irish defense in the next meeting.

Presently, Bennett is getting just about everything he wants out of his point guard, but he’s still pushing for even more.

“He knows what this team needs,” Bennett said. “He’s got to keep pushing himself to be a vocal leader, a demander and not be afraid to offend guys. He needs to push, push, push and get out of that comfort zone. I think he is becoming more like that. He’s had a nice stretch and we’re going to continue to need that from him.”

When Clark transforms into “that guy” Bennett was talking about, watch out. He could become a monster on the floor.

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