Some UVA fans don’t want Kihei back, and neither do rival ACC coaches

By Jerry Ratcliffe

kihei clark

Kihei Clark (Photo: UVA Athletics)

Just about every ACC basketball coach made a similar comment last season following their last game against Virginia.

“Please tell me this was Kihei Clark’s last season.” Or, “Man, I hope Kihei is gone because I’m tired of playing against him.”

By now, the bad news has traveled from Boston to South Bend, from Louisville all the way down the coast to Miami; Kihei is back for a fifth year. Not only were ACC coaches disappointed to learn of the return, but a segment of UVA’s own fan base didn’t want another year of Kihei, which left rival coaches scratching their heads.

“People don’t want Kihei Clark back? Why would that be?” asked Miami coach Jim Larrañaga, almost in disbelief.

Some Cavalier fans didn’t like the way Clark penetrates deep into the lane and sometimes turns the ball over. Some didn’t like the fact he wasn’t a higher-percentage shooter, particularly from deep. Others believe Clark’s return for a fifth year will hold back the development of backcourt mate Reece Beekman and possibly incoming freshmen.

“Holy mackerel,” Larrañaga responded. “Are you serious?”

The Miami coach quickly looked up Clark’s season statistics, which only further convinced him that Virginia fans were wrong.

“When you’re a point guard, you have a lot more responsibility than everybody else, because you’re initiating the offense and you’re initiating the defense,” Larrañaga said. “If you don’t have a good on-ball defender, you’ve got a problem at the point. And you’re talking about a guy (Clark) who I would say the coaches around the league believe is one of the best on-ball defenders. He’s an outstanding defensive leader.

“So you look at his statistics, plays 36 minutes a game, averages 10 points, 38 percent from 3, 70.8 percent from the foul line. Four and a half assists and a two-to-one, assist-to-turnover ratio. I don’t know if you get a lot better point guards than that.”

Virginia Cavaliers guard Kihei Clark (0) reacts after drawing a foul on the Louisville Cardinals during the second-round game of the 2022 ACC Tournament in Brooklyn (Photo by David Welker / theacc.com).

Larrañaga said that if the coaches around the ACC were polled on whether they’d like Kihei Clark to stay or go, “Every one of them would say I hope he’s gone.”

One of those coaches is Georgia Tech’s Josh Pastner, who also found it difficult to believe Cavalier fans wouldn’t want Clark back for a fifth year.

“If Virginia fans don’t like Kihei, then when we play [UVA], I’m happy to put a Georgia Tech jersey on him,” Pastner said. “I have great respect for Virginia fans, a great fan base, however for anyone that wouldn’t want Kihei back, that’s just irrational.

“He’s one of the best guards in the ACC … heck, he’s one of the best guards in the country. He’s older. I’d rather play Virginia without him. He just makes Virginia that much better.”

Pastner said he’s seen Clark hit big shot after big shot for the past four seasons. He helped them get to the national championship and win it. Who could ever forget the most memorable assist in Virginia basketball history, the last-second pass to Mamadi Diakite that saved UVA’s bacon in the Elite Eight against Purdue in 2019? CBS’ Mr. Final Four, Jim Nance, said it was the greatest assist in NCAA Tournament history.

“I don’t think Tony Bennett needs any help in putting his teams together,” Pastner said. “As long as he doesn’t fall off a cliff, Tony’s going to be in the Hall of Fame one day. I think he knows what he’s doing, and I’m sure he would tell you how excited he was when Kihei told him he’s coming back.”

Pastner said the thought of any portion of UVA fans against Clark coming back for another year is completely “mind boggling to me.”

Larrañaga wished Clark had packed his bags and left college basketball at halftime in Virginia’s game at Miami last season.

“He beat us,” Larrañaga said. “He made three 3’s to start the second half. We were up six at the half, and all of a sudden we’re down six to start the second half, and Kihei Clark was the whole reason. He changed the whole game around.”

Larrañaga said he believes Virginia fans are just spoiled over Bennett’s success. He pointed out all of the regular-season championships UVA has won over the past decade, not to mention tournament titles and the natty. He pointed out the Cavaliers have won more regular-season crowns (five) than either Duke or North Carolina during the same span.

“If someone said to you back in 2010 that over the next decade, Virginia is going to win five regular-season titles and Duke only one, I think you’d be pretty pleased with that,” said Larrañaga, who was an assistant on Terry Holland’s UVA staff in the 1980s.

“Getting back to Kihei, he puts so much pressure on the other team’s ball-handler, and the Pack-Line provides Virginia the most consistent defense this league has seen since I’ve been in this conference (at Miami), and that’s 11 years,” Larrañaga said. “Throughout Tony Bennett’s time at UVA, they have been either the best team or one of the top two defense teams in the conference.

“The standard is so high that if you have a year when you’re not first or second in the league, it’s almost like a bad year for Virginia now.”

Larrañaga watched the Cavaliers improve from the beginning of the season with two transfers — Armaan Franklin and Jayden Gardner — playing key roles, in addition to Kayden Shedrick getting a starring role for the first time.

“It took time for that team to gel,” Larrañaga said. “What they lacked was experience playing together. With their top six guys coming back, Kihei getting an extra year, a good recruiting class and the Vander Plas kid transferring in, they’ve got one hell of a chance to win the ACC next year. Preseason, I’d say Carolina one, Virginia two. I would think people should be happy with that.”

Well, maybe most people. The Kihei detractors will still find a reason to complain.

 

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