Kihei Clark is back to help Virginia do ‘something special’ on the hardwood
Kihei Clark knows that he has his critics, that there are some in the Virginia fan base that didn’t want him to return for his COVID redshirt year.
Clark, the last link to the 2019 national title team, also knows that you can’t always win everybody over.
“I mean, you can’t please everybody, right? So, I kind of just don’t really worry about them and just try to worry about what my team needs and what my coaching staff requires me to do. So, that’s honestly all I’m worried about,” said Clark, who announced on April 18 that he would be returning for a fifth season at Virginia.
The 5’9” point guard from Woodland Hills, Calif., has started in 108 games at UVA, averaging 8.5 points and 4.2 assists per game, while playing a variety of roles in his four years.
As a freshman, Clark was tasked with being the primary defender on opposing point guards, to free up Ty Jerome, now a three-year NBA veteran, to focus on running the team on offense.
As a sophomore, Clark was asked to become a primary creator on offense, and averaged a career-best 10.8 points and 5.9 assists per game for a team that won 11 of its last 12 before the pandemic shut down the season.
The past two seasons, Clark has shared the point-guard duties with NBA prospect Reece Beekman, while still being the guy that coach Tony Bennett wants with the ball in his hands in clutch situations.
There were indications in early February that Clark was planning to return for a fifth season, but after the season-ending loss to St. Bonaventure in the NIT on March 22, all was quiet on the Kihei front for nearly four weeks.
“I honestly didn’t know what I was going to do,” Clark said of the interregnum. “Obviously, it’s a big decision in my life, whether to come back or to pursue my professional career, but yeah, talked it over with my family, and ultimately thought coming back was the best decision. I love it here, and I can’t wait for the new year to come.”
You might assume that Bennett threw out a recruiting pitch to try to get Clark to stay on for another year, but, no.
“There honestly wasn’t that much of a of a pitch,” Clark said. “We kind of just sat down and had the talk, and I said I wanted to come back, if, you know, if you’d allow it, and of course he was excited to hear the news. That’s kind of just how it went. It was kind of mutual, and yeah, everybody’s excited. I think we can accomplish something special.”
Something special, indeed: Virginia will return its top six scorers, in addition to adding Ohio transfer Ben Vander Plas, who averaged 14.2 points and 6.8 rebounds per game at Ohio in 2021-2022, and a recruiting class that 247Sports ranks 11th nationally.
North Carolina returns the core of its rotation, and Duke will bring in another talented one-and-done class, but Virginia should be in the mix at the top of the ACC going into the fall.
“We have goals of winning the ACC, the ACC Tournament, and then obviously, trying to make the (NCAA) tournament for next year,” Clark said. “But trying not to think too far ahead. Obviously, we keep this past year in the back of our minds and how it went, never losing that edge and using that to fuel this next year.
“I want to win. And yeah, being able to make the tournament this upcoming year, it would mean a lot, and just having a season that we know we could have had (this year) if we had just tightened a few things up. We think we’re close, and I think we can do it if we if we just lock in on a couple areas,” Clark said.
Locking in was a focus of a message that Bennett had for his team after the loss to St. Bonaventure, which, rare for Bennett, he shared with the media after the game.
“This offseason is important,” Bennett said that night. “A lot of these young men are going to have to decide how committed, how hard they’ll work, how much they’ll improve their skills, how much tougher they can become and how much they love it. They have to take a step.
“We must improve every player that returns in this program,” Bennett said. “They better take a step in terms of commitment and their strength and their ability and to commit and work. If they don’t want to, then they shouldn’t be here.”
Clark feels the stern message from Bennett was warranted.
“It was kind of just to push us off the court this spring, in putting in our offseason work and just trying to get better, you know, just taking that next step,” Clark said. “I think we’re right there. So, everybody’s going to improve, especially as a team and individually, making sure everybody gets their individual workouts. I know we’re all in the gym right now, grinding in the weight room. But he did say there was going to be a lot of competition. So, being able to fight for your minutes, and just being able to compete, and just trying to gain that competitive mindset, I think it’d be really important.”
Clark is focusing his offseason workouts on “getting a little more consistent.”
“I think you can always work on your shot,” Clark said. “I think I took a little step in my shot last year, and I look to take another step this year. And, just working on my floater and my finishing and just trying to be a little bit more consistent.”
Usually a leader by example more than by his words, Clark is also looking to step up vocally. To that end, he took a public speaking class in the spring semester, which from the interview that he did with us last week for the “Jerry Ratcliffe Show” seems to be working out.
“They say the player-led teams are the other really good ones. Everybody’s going to have to lead, and everybody’s going to have to talk and communicate,” Clark said. “But I think just showing the young guys, especially the four coming in, and Ben, when he comes in, the culture here and just bringing them along if we’re doing workouts, and just showing them what it’s like to be a part of this culture.”
The group will get a chance to get an early leg up on team-building for 2022-2023 with a trip to Italy in August, which will get the team back to Charlottesville early for practices ahead of a schedule of exhibition games and sightseeing.
“Guys will be learning the concepts a little sooner than usual,” Clark said. “It might be a little fast, but just to put their head down and just keep working, because we’re all together, and we’re all behind each other supporting each other, so just trying to get that aspect down, and of course, the trip should be fun. It should be a nice bonding moment to just learn, the guys learning about the guys and feeling each other out personality-wise and off the court. It should be a good time.”
The one thing that had some fans thinking that Clark wasn’t returning for a fifth year was the presence of his family at Senior Day. It’s a ways off now, but a second Senior Day is in the offing, and Clark looks forward to having his mom and dad back on Grounds one more time.
Clark said he gets his warrior mentality on the court from his father, Malik, who played basketball at Hawaii-Hilo.
“From a young age, he always had me working on my defense, and he always told me I was going to be the shortest guy on the court, so just playing with a chip on my shoulder and knowing that, you know, there’s always going to be people who doubt me in my abilities, but just trying to have the confidence in myself and doing whatever it takes to help my team win,” said Clark, who knows after each game that he will have a series of texts from his father with praise and critiques on his play.
“Yeah, all the time, he’ll be texting me during the game just so when I come back to my phone after the game, I have a long list of text messages, you missed a free throw, turnover or something like that. So he’s always in my ear, and he’s always offering advice for me, which I love,” Clark said.
His mother, Sharon, at first when he started playing was the one who “was always, like, don’t get hurt, don’t do this, watch out, be careful. But now she’s the loudest one in the stands,” Clark said. “She’s always screaming in the stands, and I know her love and support for me is always at an all-time high. And I love her for that, and it means a lot to me that that she can come out and support me and just watch her firstborn play basketball.”
Having Tony Bennett as a sort of surrogate parent isn’t such a bad deal, either.
“Just the person he is, and the way he carries himself, he’s helped me grow a lot, especially with the pillars,” Clark said. “I think, you know, coming into your first year, you’re kind of, you know, what are these, like, they’re kind of foreign to you, and kind of new to you a little bit. But I think that those are things that tell you how you should carry your life and obviously, they play an impact on this program on and off the court. He means a lot to me.”
Story by Chris Graham