Facing former EYBL foe Tre Jones, Kihei Clark looks to be more successful in second matchup against Duke

Story by Zach Pereles

Kihei ClarkLeading into Virginia’s last game against Duke, Kihei Clark’s defensive abilities had been well-noted.

He stifled Wisconsin’s Brad Davison, limiting him to just five points.

He single-handedly — literally and figuratively, considering he was wearing a case on his left hand — forced a 10-second call against Virginia Commonwealth with the two teams tied late in the game. “He about made me jump out of my shoes when he got that 10-second call,” Tony Bennett said following the game. Clark then drew the ultimate compliment for an undersized guard: a comparison to Muggsy Bogues.

He incensed Justin Robinson, eventually eliciting a technical foul out of the Hokies’ senior leader in the Cavaliers’ blowout win.

No opposing point guard wanted to see Virginia’s 5-foot-9 defensive dynamo across the way.

Then came Duke, and maybe a blessing in disguise for the Blue Devils: They didn’t have a point guard. With Tre Jones out with a shoulder injury, the Blue Devils handed the keys of the offense to likely top-2 NBA Draft pick RJ Barrett. It made what was already a big, long, athletic Duke team even bigger, longer and more athletic. Taking the place of the 6-foot-2 Jones, the 6-foot-7 Barrett poured in 30 points and played all 40 minutes.

And that spelled trouble for Clark, who has built his reputation on defending college point guards, not future NBA forwards-turned-point guards. Clark’s statline from the game — two points, a rebound, an assist, a steal and two turnovers — didn’t indicate much good or bad. But in 18 minutes with Clark on the floor, Virginia was outscored by 10 points.

Duke was able to exploit Clark on the defensive end on a couple of occasions, simply by using the size of de-facto point guard Barrett. Here are a couple of times in which Barrett gets the switch he wants and attacks, once drawing a foul and another time getting a basket against Clark.

It was apparent Duke wanted to attack Virginia’s smallest player as often as possible, especially given the Barrett towers over Clark by nearly a foot. That won’t be the case with Jones — a more traditional point guard — back in the fold. That’s not to take anything away from Jones, who is one of the nation’s best on-ball defenders and a terrific passer and point guard. But the two are completely differently players offensively.

Barrett has taken 163 shots at the rim this year, compared with just 52 for Jones, per Hoop-Math.com. Barrett has shot 120 free throws this season. Jones has shot 26. So Jones’ return, in theory, should allow for Clark to defend the perimeter — by far his best skill — more frequently and more effectively.

“Size-wise it will be a little closer, but it’s just different dimensions,” Bennett said. “They were certainly big without Tre, and they’re still big, but now they have a different component.”

Plus, Clark might be the only player on Virginia who has played against Jones, having faced Jones’ Howard Pulley team as a member of the Oakland Soldiers on the Nike EYBL circuit. That, too could help give him an advantage that no other Virginia player has.

“Typically, you can watch all the film you want, and certainly it helps and gives you appreciation, but I do think feeling the size of the guy, how quick he is, the things he does, that stuff is much more in the flesh,” Bennett said Monday.

Virginia will need strong contributions from almost all of its players if it wishes to get revenge on the Blue Devils, and Clark can be a key part of that. He will have to be a key part of that if Ty Jerome is unavailable. But at least size-wise and skill-set-wise, Clark should be much more comfortable this time around against Duke and able to get back to doing what he does best.

uva basketball team of destiny
Team of Destiny: Inside Virginia Basketball’s Run to the 2019 National Championship, by Jerry Ratcliffe and Chris Graham, is now available at a special pre-sale discounted price of $20. The book is expected to ship by May 15, 2019, and expected to retail for $25.
Pre-order for $20: click here.


The book, with additional reporting by Scott Ratcliffe and Zach Pereles, will take you from the aftermath of the stunning first-round loss to UMBC in 2018, and how coach Tony Bennett and his team used that loss as the source of strength, through to the ACC regular-season championship, the run to the Final Four, and the thrilling overtime win over Texas Tech to win the 2019 national title, the first in school history.
 
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