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ACC Question Marks: What About Kihei?

A real winner, Clark does better as the final piece of the puzzle than as a star performer

Duke v Virginia
CHARLOTTESVILLE, VA - FEBRUARY 29: Kihei Clark #0 of the Virginia Cavaliers drives past Vernon Carey Jr. #1 of the Duke Blue Devils in the second half during a game at John Paul Jones Arena on February 29, 2020 in Charlottesville, Virginia.
Photo by Ryan M. Kelly/Getty Images

Honestly, one of the most disappointing things about this past season, perhaps more disappointing in one sense than even Covid, was Virginia fans turning on Kihei Clark.

Why would we say that it’s more disappointing than Covid?

Because Covid is an indiscriminating biological phenomenon, a force of nature and Virginia fans - okay, some Virginia fans - were irrationally disloyal to a guy who was critical to their spectacular national championship run.

One of these just did what it was supposed to do; the other had a choice.

Seriously: if he didn't make that perfect pass to Mamadi Diakite in the Purdue game, that never happened.

So it shocked us that Virginia fans turned on him online.

There’s nothing wrong with Kihei. As Tony Bennett said when he first saw him in high school, “that kid’s a winner.”

And he still is.

But here’s the rub.

Clark is a 5-9 point guard with limited physical talent. His greatest gift is that he makes the players around him better, but that formula depends...on the players around him.

If he has really good teammates, he can play to his strengths. If not, he tries to do more than he is really capable of.

We saw that at times over the last two years as Virginia struggled, in relative terms, after their big championship year.

It’s a lot easier to look great with Kyle Guy, Ty Jerome and De’Andre Hunter than without. For the Virginia fans who were unhappy with Kihei, what you’re seeing is a guy who desperately wants to win. He’s not dominant enough to impose himself on the game directly, but he’s doing his best.

So the question is: what’s he got to work with?

And honestly we’re not sure yet. First, Virginia is kind of smallish. The only big guys are Francisco Caffaro and Kadin Shedrick. Caffaro is a junior now and has had minimal impact. Shedrick redshirted last season so we can’t know yet how much progress he made.

We liked Reece Beekman a lot last year and think he may turn out to be special. Aarman Franklin comes over from Indiana as a junior transfer and Jayden Gardner transferred from ECU.

The thing is though that Tony Bennett, like Notre Dame’s Mike Brey, has thrived by getting guys to stay in his system for 3-5 years. It’s been a slight advantage in one sense - Virginia’s margin of victory is typically not large - but in the last five minutes of games, Virginia’s experience gives them a huge advantage over younger teams. And until now, almost everyone is younger than Virginia.

The transfer portal might be a great thing for some coaches, and Bennett may have picked up a couple of nice players in Franklin and Gardner, but really, it’s antithetical to how he has coached to date.

So will he have enough players to let Kihei go back to being the sublime presence that he is when he’s not asked (or feels forced) to exceed his limitations?

Because if you see Clark trying to dominate Virginia’s offense, especially late, then the ‘Hoos are in trouble. But if you don't notice him and Virginia keeps winning, then UVa is on the right track.

The old cliche is that [fill in the blank] makes other guys better but in Clark’s case, it’s absolutely true.

It just depends on having superior players for him to make better.