Kihei Clark knows what’s been said about him.
The Virginia guard doesn’t often use Twitter, he said, but people have told him about the nasty comments hurled in his direction. Critics have said he can’t shoot, that he’s an offensive liability.
But Coach Tony Bennett runs a program that prides itself on its reluctance to entertain the opinions of others. Virginia players regularly extol the virtues of blocking out noise, and Clark abides by that theory.
“People are going to say what they’re going to say,” Clark said. “I’m still going to play my game.”
On Friday, that meant being an active presence against No. 16-seed Gardner-Webb, diving for loose balls and prying for steals. The freshman finished with three points, five rebounds, four assists and three steals in top-seeded Virginia’s 71-56 victory. It was the type of performance that’s made it easy for Bennett to keep Clark in the starting lineup despite the guard’s scoring struggles.
“When you play against certain kinds of teams that have elite quickness and you can set your defense with good ball pressure, that’s really important, and he’s allowed us to do that,” Bennett said. “When you’re behind that and he’s setting your defense and you’re a player, I think that can be inspiring or get the guys going.”
Clark has shown flashes of offensive consistency, sneaking to the rim for quick layups and drilling open 3-pointers. But more often, the 5-foot-9 guard has been a non-factor. He was held scoreless in eight regular season ACC games.
But his defensive intensity has been contagious. Guard Kyle Guy compared him to former Cavaliers forward Isaiah Wilkins, the 2018 ACC Defensive Player of the Year, who now plays for the G-League’s Greensboro Swarm.
“Picking up full court for 33 games now, you don’t see me doing that,” Guy said. “He doesn’t care about stats, and he does a lot of little things that help us win.”
Guard Ty Jerome echoed that sentiment. The junior also noted that Clark’s understanding of the importance of possessions is still evolving.
“I think he was a little sloppy with the ball at certain times when he came in. Everyone who comes from high school is just used to playing with a huge leash,” Jerome said. “He’s grown so much from day one in that aspect.”
Clark’s turnover numbers have improved. In the 12 games since he had six giveaways against Miami on Feb. 2, Clark has lost just seven turnovers. Three of them came Friday, but Clark did enough elsewhere on the court to make up for it.
“He’s been so valuable,” Bennett said.