The confetti has been swept up. The 2019 NBA Draft declarations have been made. The churn of college basketball is never-ending, and the defending NCAA champion — Virginia — is not exempt. Things are changing in Charlottesville, where much of the core of this past season’s magical national title run is moving on.
Guards Ty Jerome, De’Andre Hunter and Kyle Guy will not be returning, and forward Mamadi Diakite might be joining them in the draft pool, too. Center Jack Salt’s eligibility has expired, and guard Marco Anthony has entered his name in the NCAA transfer portal.
The Cavaliers will have several new faces next season to fill those holes, but over the coming weeks, The Daily Progress will take stock of the team’s returning scholarship players, and look ahead to how they can contribute in the future.
Up first is Kihei Clark.
» Position: Point guard
» Year: Rising sophomore
» 2018-19 averages: 4.5 points, 2.7 assists, 2.3 rebounds
Clark had an eventful first season, and earned his first college start by Virginia’s sixth game of the season. Coach Tony Bennett gushed over the 5-foot-9, 155-pound guard’s defensive tenacity, comparing Clark to former NBA teammate Muggsy Bogues.
The freshman started four games in a row in late November/early December, the last of which came on Dec. 9 in the team’s 57-49 win over VCU. Clark played a key role. He scored nine points and forced a 10-second violation himself by picking up his man full court.
“He made me jump out of my shoes,” Bennett said then. “Our staff said, ‘I’ve never seen a guy do that on an individual defender.’ And I said, I have: ‘Muggsy Bogues.’”
Clark underwent surgery on his fractured left wrist in mid-December, and though he didn’t miss any games, he didn’t return to the starting lineup until for good until the tail end of the regular season.
It was in the postseason that the Woodland Hills, California native shined the brightest. He tied a career best with 12 points in the team’s 53-49 win over Oregon in the Sweet 16, but it was in the next round that Clark cemented his place in UVa lore.
With the Cavaliers trailing Purdue 70-68 with about five seconds remaining, Clark set off on a chase for a loose ball. Jerome had missed a free throw, and forward Mamadi Diakite tipped it away. Clark raced down the court, recovered the ball, took two dribbles and swung the ball back to Diakite, looking off Jerome and guard Kyle Guy. Diakite’s close-range jumper at the buzzer was good.
“Kihei made the play of the century,” Jerome said after the 80-75 overtime win that sent Virginia to the Final Four.
Clark continued to be a pest as the tournament wore on, and he scored nine points in Virginia’s 63-62 win over Auburn in the national semifinal.
For all of the early season praise from Bennett, Clark often drew the ire of Virginia fans late in the season for his offensive inconsistency. Clark was held to zero points in eight games, including a stretch of three scoreless contests in a row in February.
He was a shaky ball-handler at times. When Jerome missed Viginia’s game against Miami on Feb. 2 with a sprained back, Clark assumed the role of the team’s maestro and coughed up six turnovers.
“I had a couple of careless mistakes, so I’ve got to just clean those up,” Clark said after the 56-46 win.
By the start of the NCAA Tournament, many UVa fans had soured on Clark. He had been trashed on Twitter.
As the postseason progressed, of course, Clark quieted the doubters.
With Jerome, Hunter, Guy and Anthony gone, Clark will begin next season as the Cavaliers’ longest tenured pure guard on scholarship. It’ll be a new role for Clark, who Hunter jokingly referred to as his “son,” in late January, in reference to Clark’s height and age.
Virginia has a number of incoming guards, and Clark will be looked at as a leader.
It remains to be seen whether Clark can embrace that role. Offensively, he played best this past season as a secondary ball-handler alongside Jerome. He’ll need to continue to improve his passing while maintaining his defensive aggression.