(Image – Michael Conroy – AP Photo)
In two years at the University of Virginia, Kihei Clark has done what very few have in the program’s history. The 364th ranked recruit by 247Sports in the class of 2018, Clark started in the National Championship game as a true freshman. He played a whopping 1019 minutes as a first year, and cemented himself in a backcourt with two eventual NBA Draft picks.
In his second year on Grounds, Clark took the reins and helped lead the team to second place in the ACC and a likely top-four seed in the NCAA tournament. He was second in the team in scoring (10.8 PPG), first in assists (5.9 APG), and first in three point shooting percentage (37.5%). Clark earned himself a spot on the All ACC Third Team, and even finished 13th in the country in assist rate (37.7%).
All that goes to say, for a kid who didn’t even crack the top-350 as a recruit, he’s had an incredible impact on the Virginia basketball community in just two short years. But perhaps where Clark’s impact has been most profound has been as an ambassador for the various backgrounds he represents.
Born in Tarzana, California, Clark has an incredibly diverse ethnic background. His father, Malik, is half Chinese and half Black, while his mother, Sharon, is Filipina and grew up in Hawaii. In fact, Clark was only the second Filipino basketball player to win an NCAA title.
As he represents a wide range of backgrounds, Clark has garnered a significant following even in the early stages of his career. “I definitely know that and acknowledge the cultures that I represent,” Clark says. “It means a lot. I know I have a lot of support out there. So it drives me. I know I have a lot of fan love out there.”
While Instagram follower numbers are hardly comprehensive assessments of popularity, Clark does have a whopping 76.1 thousand followers. In fact, that number surpasses the accounts of more statistically prominent former teammates Ty Jerome (63.7 thousand followers), Mamadi Diakite (29.1 thousand), and Braxton Key (22.2 thousand), and is only five thousand fewer than the official UVa Men’s Basketball account (81.7 thousand). For a player only halfway through his college career, that type of following is notable.
According to Kihei’s father, Clark receives overwhelming support from the areas he represents. “He has a big following in the Philippines,” Malik says. “His following out in Hawaii is huge,” noting that “people see somebody on the court with those giants, but the guy looks like you. He’s got your complexion. They can relate to that. That’s really big out there, and it’s probably why he has the following he does.”
But despite Clark’s avid following, he’s also faced significant doubt of his playing abilities both on the recruiting trail and from the UVa faithful.
As he notes, even before arriving in Charlottesville, Clark had to fight to be recognized by major programs. Initially committed to UC Davis, Clark’s only high major scholarship offer was from Xavier who had told him that, while they’d honor the offer, it was unlikely he’d ever see the floor. “Obviously, that didn’t sit well with me,” says Clark.
Specifically in his first year at Virginia, fans on social media and message boards mocked Clark’s height and questioned whether he could compete in the ACC. But the doubt is nothing new for him. “I didn’t pay much mind to it,” Clark says, “I definitely did hear it. But I didn’t really care. I mean I’ve heard it my entire life. I just went out and just played my game no matter what and it worked out.”
Work out it did, as in Clark’s first season on Grounds, he started twenty games, including all six in the NCAA tournament, and provided essential pressurized on ball defense that the team had lacked the year before. His best game of the year came in the Sweet 16 against Oregon, when he scored twelve points, dished out six assists, and hit a number of clutch three-pointers to lead the team to a 53-49 victory.
But entering the season, Clark was still uncertain of what role he’d play. “I didn’t know to expect,” he says. “I just wanted to contribute and be ready when my number was called. Just make the most of my time.”
The summer before the season, Ty Jerome reached out to Clark to let him know that there was an opportunity for him to come in and have an immediate impact. “He just gave me some encouraging words,” Clark recalls, “So, I just wanted to go in an compete for a spot.”
Second Year Jump
But after proving himself on the biggest stage as a first year role player, Clark entered his second year as one of the leaders of the team. In addition to his increased role, because the team lacked a true backup point guard, Clark had to play a significant number of minutes. In fact, Clark played 37.1 MPG, which was the most in the conference and twentieth most nationwide.
“You definitely feel it after games and after practices,” he says, “I definitely try to get a lot of rest. The coaching staff knew I logged a lot of minutes and cut down my practice time. Logging a lot of minutes, it was nothing wrong for me. I love to play, and just trying to help the team win in any way possible. So if I have to play forty, I play forty. Whatever we got to do to win.”
While Clark and the team struggled early in conference play, their eight game win streak to close the season was chalk full with impressive play from the Wahoo point guard. Most notably, Clark’s two performances against Louisville in the 2019-2020 season were memorable. Playing against Louisville head coach Chris Mack, the former Xavier coach, Clark averaged 20.5 PPG, 6 APG, and shot 6-9 from behind the arc.
Expectations for Next Season
That late season run and the addition of a number of new weapons to Tony Bennett’s arsenal have heightened expectations for next year’s squad. But for Clark, all the supposed outside hype is secondary to the team’s belief in themselves.
“You always hear teams are supposed to be good,” he says. “But when its time to step on the court, I just feel like our coaching staff puts us in a great position to win, puts us in the best position to win. I don’t see us losing that many games. I don’t see a single team beating us in a flat out game.”
Of course, COVID-19 casts a long shadow over any speculation about the 2020-2021 college basketball season. But no matter if the season goes on as planned, is condensed, or even cancelled, Kihei Clark will continue to represent his diverse backgrounds.