UVA basketball: Clark, Key stepping in, filling void

UVA basketballRemember how pins and needles we all were about whether Braxton Key would be eligible to play this season for fourth-ranked UVA?

Key has been, well, key for the Cavaliers as the first month of the 2018-2019 season comes to a close. But don’t overlook 5’9” freshman Kihei Clark, and, no, I’m not trying to make a dumb joke about Clark being tiny there.

The unheralded – three-star; originally committed to UC-Davis, his other serious offer – Clark is averaging 27.0 minutes per game for the 6-0 ‘Hoos, fourth-most on the team, and actually more than Key, the Alabama transfer who is averaging 24.7 minutes per game.

The quick acclimation of both into the demanding system of coach Tony Bennett has helped make up for the losses of starters Devon Hall and Isaiah Wilkins to graduation.

Clark has been the surprise, without question. Clark replaced Key in the starting lineup for Friday’s Battle 4 Atlantis title game win over Wisconsin, logging 37 minutes, scoring five points, pulling down five rebounds, adding three steals and two assists.

Most impressive, maybe: Clark, as a primary ballhandler, has six turnovers through six games, fewer than either of his veteran backcourt-mates, Ty Jerome and Kyle Guy (who each have eight).

Clark’s surprising emergence has allowed Bennett to tinker with lineups and strategy on both ends of the floor.

Most noticeable, Clark being on the floor has allowed Jerome to play more on the wing in Virginia’s mover-blocker offense, utilizing his size and shiftiness to get open on the perimeter and in the lane off screens and dribble-drives.

Clark at the point also allows projected 2019 NBA lottery pick De’Andre Hunter to get more minutes in the post, where he has been deadly – shooting 66 percent from the floor on two-point field-goal attempts, while attempting a team-high 47 shots inside the three-point line.

The contributions from Clark have, as well, helped ease the transition for Key, who has become the team’s stopper on the defensive end – with a defensive rating at an absurd 73.9, by far the best rating to this point in the season on what is right now the nation’s second-best team in defensive efficiency (87.4; Michigan is first, at 86.9).

The lineup flexibility that Key (6’8”, 225) and Hunter (6’7”, 225) bring to the fore, in terms of their ability to guard all five positions, is heightened when those two are on the floor with Jerome (6’5”, 195), Guy (6’2”, 175) and Clark (5’9”, 155).

The Pack Line has never had as much speed and quickness on the floor, at least not to my memory, as we’ve seen through the early stages of the 2018-2019 season.

It’s to a point where Bennett has been able to experiment with throwing in the occasional three-quarter-court press into the mix, and at other times having Clark extend his defense against ballhandlers deep into the backcourt as a solo act, the primary goal in either scenario being to force opponents to take an extra few seconds to get the ball into the frontcourt.

Those extra few seconds, added to the difficulty already inherent in running half-court offense against the Pack Line, can seem almost unfair.

Not surprisingly, UVA opponents are averaging 19.7 seconds per offensive possession, 352nd among the 353 teams in Division I.

It’s early to get too excited just yet, but for comparison, opponents averaged 18.8 seconds per offensive possession in 2017-2018, so we’re talking almost an extra second per possession, i.e. not too shabby.

The bottom-line numbers are also looking better, and again, it’s early, small sample size, et cetera, but I mentioned the defense is second nationally in adjusted efficiency, so the adjustments have been made to account for the losses of Hall and Wilkins, the defensive linchpins from last year’s 31-3 ACC champs.

The offense, flip side, is currently 12th nationally, after ranking 30th a year ago.

Those trends – continued solid defense, more efficient offense – would seem to be good steps for this Virginia team.

Column by Chris Graham

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