Having Kihei Clark, Reece Beekman back together is a big plus for Virginia

Having Kihei Clark, Reece Beekman back together is a big plus for Virginia

Scott Ratcliffe
kihei clark reece beekman
Kihei Clark and Reece Beekman. Photo by Dan Grogan.

When Virginia’s Kihei Clark chose to come back for one more season in Charlottesville, for some Cavalier followers, it was a polarizing decision.

Depending on who you asked, Clark will either bring back a ton of valuable experience and fifth-year leadership, or his presence will continue to “hamper” the play and development of fellow point guard Reece Beekman.

Everyone is certainly entitled to their own opinions, but it’s hard to argue that having both Clark — a third-team All-ACC pick as a sophomore and honorable mention each of the last two seasons — and Beekman on the court together is a bad thing.

It may not exactly be ideal to feature two floor generals, but UVA coach Tony Bennett has won a national championship with that formula, so it’s tough to question the thinking.

As a true freshman in 2018-19, Clark became the primary ball handler, with Ty Jerome moving off the ball and Kyle Guy operating more on the wing. All can agree that worked out pretty well.

Clark played a key role in the Cavaliers’ run to the title, most notably his dramatic last-second, chase-down assist to Mamadi Diakite for his memorable shot against Purdue to send the game to overtime en route to a Final Four.

The 5-foot-10 Woodland Hills, Calif., native brings four years of starting ACC experience, with a no-fear ability to take it to the rack amongst the trees, knock down some 3-pointers, or get up under opposing point guards and play tight, intense defense. His ability to disrupt the other team’s “quarterback” as he’s trying to direct his offense goes a long way when it comes to breaking a play down defensively.

Just ask Miami head coach Jim Larrañaga, who had this to say about having to face Clark one more season.

“If you don’t have a good on-ball defender, you’ve got a problem at the point,” the Hurricanes’ coach said. “And you’re talking about a guy who I would say the coaches around the league believe is one of the best on-ball defenders. He’s an outstanding defensive leader.”

If anything, one could argue that Beekman’s play was elevated by the presence of Clark. Beekman himself agrees.

“It’s always a battle with him,” Beekman said of going up against Clark daily in practice. “He’s a great competitor. Since my first year, he’s helped me so much on defense and just learning stuff, just guarding him every day at practice just helps me. We learn from each other and help each other, and he helps me see the game in a different way.”

Last season, Clark started all 35 games, averaging 10.0 points, 2.9 rebounds, 4.4 assists (fifth in the conference) and 0.9 steals across a team-high 36 minutes per game (second in the ACC). He knocked down 54 of his 156 3-point attempts (35 percent) and shot 78 percent (61 for 78) from the free-throw line.

He explained his decision to return for one more year.

“I got some feedback, talked to my family,” said Clark. “Just to better my professional career next year, I thought it would be a good idea to come back, get a chance to improve on some of my weaknesses and get a chance to winning this year. I think we can do something special.”

And then there’s Beekman. Talk about defense — the junior guard has been one of the best perimeter defenders in the country during his time at Virginia.

He was named to the ACC All-Defensive Team as a sophomore, and it’s a good bet he’ll be a strong contender for Defensive Player of the Year, an honor many felt he deserved to win over Duke’s Mark Willliams a season ago.

Beekman (6-3, 190 pounds) also brought the ball up the court the majority of the time and ran the offense last season. He averaged 8.2 points, 3.9 rebounds, an ACC-best 5.2 assists and a conference-high 2.1 steals per game, while blocking 25 shots on the season. Beekman also started every game, and was right behind Clark in minutes played with 35.1 a night (fourth in the ACC).

In addition, the Milwaukee native ranked first in the ACC defensive plus-minus with a 5.2 rating (next-best was Williams’ 4.8), second in total steals (73), behind only Miami’s Charlie Moore, who nabbed 75, and first in assist-to-turnover ratio (3.62). Beekman became more confident and aggressive offensively, putting up 146 more field-goal attempts than he did as a freshman. He didn’t shoot much from beyond the arc (22-for-65), but was effective when he did let it fly, converting on 34 percent of his attempts, and also was a 76-percent free-throw shooter.

Who could forget his game-winning 3-point daggers against Syracuse two years ago in the ACC Tournament? Or the one that knocked off No. 7 Duke in Virginia’s last trip to Cameron Indoor Stadium against legendary coach Mike Krzyzewski?

Put all of that together in your starting backcourt, and it’d be pretty challenging to find a more complete, experienced duo. Clark ultimately wants to finish his memorable Wahoo career the way he started it — making a deep run in the postseason, particularly after falling short in the NIT quarterfinals to conclude last season.

“I want to win,” he said. “I want to get to the tournament. You’ve got to stay in the moment and work from game to game. Hopefully we are in a better spot in March.”

Scott Ratcliffe

Scott Ratcliffe

Scott Ratcliffe has worked as a freelance writer for several publications over the past decade-plus, with a concentration on local and college sports. He is also a writer and editor for his father’s website, JerryRatcliffe.com, dedicated to the coverage of University of Virginia athletics.