After their first season without an NCAA tournament berth since 2013, the Virginia Cavaliers are currently set to return seven scholarship players: Kihei Clark, Reece Beekman, Armaan Franklin, Jayden Gardner, Kadin Shedrick, Francisco Caffaro, and Taine Murray.
In this season review series, we’ll take a look back at each player’s performance this year and where each of them stands. At the end, we’ll wrap it up by discussing expectations for each player next season.
Last week, we focused on point guard Reece Beekman. This week, we turn to veteran guard Kihei Clark, who returns for his fifth season with Virginia as both the most established and the most polarizing member of the current roster.
What Kihei brings to the table
After 128 games and 4,244 minutes in a Virginia Cavaliers uniform, Clark is the closest thing to a known quantity that exists in college basketball. He’s the last remaining player connecting this era of Virginia basketball to that 2019 championship squad, a piece of living history poised to make runs at a few all-time Virginia basketball records — total games, total minutes played, and total assists — next season.
Like backcourt mate Reece Beekman, Clark is a quintessential Tony Bennett facilitating guard. He’s comfortable slowing the pace of the game down, running methodically through the blocker-mover offense, and passing up good shots in search of great ones (much to the chagrin of the John Paul Jones arena crowd, whose sighs of exasperation when Clark pump-faked and dribbled out of an open three last season became a frequent occurrence).
But while we might have a pretty good idea of what Kihei can do, he has also taken major strides to improve since that 2019 season. Clark has entirely rebuilt his jump shot, developing a quicker shot with a higher release point.
While the percentages might be similar — Kihei shot 34.1% from three in his first season and 34.6% from three last season — the context could not be more different, and simply eyeballing his percentages undersells Kihei’s improvement as a shooter.
Clark took more threes by far last season than he ever had before — his total of 156 blew his previous career high for attempts, 96 in 2019-20, out of the water. He also maintained his percentages while taking looks with higher levels of difficulty; Kihei’s rates of off-dribble threes and deep threes increased.
For taking standard college-level threes, Kihei’s retooled jump shot works: Clark made 45.3% of his threes from beyond the college three-point line. That said, his new form wasn’t so successful fro beyond the NBA three-point line as his shooting percentage from deep plummeted to 29.1%.
Kihei’s confidence from beyond the arc, while still nowhere near that of his 2019 backcourt mates Ty Jerome and Kyle Guy, has also taken major leaps throughout his career. It’s hard to believe that the same player Oregon intentionally sagged off in an NCAA tournament game four years ago knocked down six threes in just the first half against Duke this season.
However, while Kihei has solidified himself as a Virginia legend and one of the most productive players in school history, he’s also become the most polarizing player on the roster. Over the course of Virginia basketball’s three-year decline from NCAA champions to NIT quarterfinalists, the undersized point guard has long been a lightning rod for criticism, with fans contending that his sizable role in the team’s offense limits its upside.
These criticisms can be overblown — Kihei is inarguably a very good college basketball player. Yet, they also aren’t totally baseless.
Offensively, Kihei has struggled historically to threaten opposing teams as a scorer because of his size and lack of threat around the basket. He’s more turnover-prone than his reputation would suggest, too. Last season, Clark had 13 games with three or more turnovers; backcourt mate Reece Beekman had just four such games, despite averaging more assists than Clark for the season.
Defensively, Clark is also an enigma. He works harder than just about any player in college basketball, exerting constant effort and picking up opposing guards full-court. Over the course of games, his intensity on that end of the floor visually wears down unprepared ball-handlers, and he’s great at positioning himself for steals or charges.
At the same time, his height can make him a liability against elite teams with the size to capitalize (see: North Carolina) or even mediocre teams with guards willing to chuck shots and let it fly over an undersized defender (see: N.C. State’s Terquavion Smith). Additionally, advanced on-off defensive metrics have long graded Clark as an average defender.
The answer on how valuable Clark is as a player definitely falls between the two extremes. As a third or fourth option, he’s a great complimentary piece; however, Kihei is definitely miscast as the fulcrum of any offense. He’s simply not built for that primary role — but, as he showed in 2019, Kihei can absolutely be a useful contributor to an elite basketball team.
How he fits into next season’s roster
Kihei is best in a complimentary role, so that’s what he should play for Virginia in 2022-23. No, that doesn’t mean drastically cutting down his minutes — he’s still going to be one of the best two guards on the team, simply because of how experienced and skilled he is in the college game. Tony Bennett values experience and even-keeled play, which is exactly what Kihei can provide.
What does a complimentary role mean? First of all, deferring to other options more frequently on the offensive end. Kihei doesn’t need to cut the occasional drives in the two-man game or the catch-and-shoot threes out of his game — those are fine shots, and ones he’s spent years developing.
What he should seek to eliminate is the midrange game; Clark shot just 28-69 from the midrange last season, a 40.6% clip that is fairly impressive for such an undersized guard but still represents a wildly inefficient shot type.
It’d also be nice to see Kihei start letting backcourt mate Reece Beekman handle the ball more frequently in the half-court. Kihei tended to initiate the offense more often than Reece last season.
Next year though, in the mover-blocker scheme that Virginia will likely stick with, having Reece on the ball and Kihei off the ball accentuates both of their strengths. Reece can make plays for others and get downhill to the basket; Kihei can put his newfound three-point range to work, knock down catch and shoot looks, and create space for the offense.
Ultimately, Clark can best contribute to next year’s squad by taking a more deferential role and letting the next generation of Virginia hoops step into the limelight. He still deserves to play plenty of meaningful minutes for the ‘Hoos, but the team would benefit (perhaps in the short-term, certainly in the long-term) from giving more opportunities to their young talent.
Ideally, Kihei can ride off into the sunset serving as a very good role player and tremendous mentor to Virginia’s young talent (one thing no one has ever doubted is Clark’s work ethic), leaving the Virginia basketball program set up for future success going forward while also enjoying his last hurrah as a Hoo.