Today I’m going to try to tackle one of the most, if not the most, polarizing topics in the post championship era of UVa hoops; Kihei Clark, his role on the team, and his potential return to the program for a 5th year. This is easily the biggest unknown of the entire offseason and will certainly be the most impactful with regard to next year’s squad.
If you believe one side of the chatter, Clark is an elite player, one of the best point guards of the Tony Bennett era and we should want him back no matter what. Why wouldn’t we? He’s an amazing player, tenacious defender, facilitator, clutch shot maker, knows the system inside and out, etc. If you believe the other side, unequivocally, his mere presence is going to limit player development across the board and cap our team’s ceiling. In truth, the answer to this question is complicated and there’s quite a bit of nuance involved that I hope to unpack over the next many words and videos. There’s going to be a lot of different things examined here so, bear with me. Hopefully it will paint a comprehensive picture by the end.
First and foremost, what’s not debatable in my opinion, is his place within the history of the program. We absolutely would not have won a national championship in 2019 if not for Kihei Clark. And I’m not just talking about The Play and making some big shots vs. Oregon – he was an integral part of many of those games and his skillset was uniquely positioned to offer things that Kyle Guy and Ty Jerome could not. The next post I put together (unless a transfer lands or something) will do a deep dive into his role within that championship run to hopefully really shine a light on some of the great and irreplaceable things (at least with that roster) that he did to help them raise the banner. Ideally, I would have done that one before this one but, given the timeliness of him (as of right now) not yet making a decision, I’m starting here. Regardless, some of these claims that there’s a ceiling as to what a future team of ours could accomplish with him on the roster have already been disproven. He was a key part of a championship team already in his career, albeit one with more future NBA players on it (6) than we will likely have next year.
The things he does well, he does really well. For example, his passing accuracy and vision. He has an uncanny knack for knowing where his players are within the offense and then delivering perfectly placed passes to them. Here’s a post-entry pass this year against FSU:
The timing and accuracy of that pass are awesome. Not only does he anticipate the exact timing of when Gardner will have the opening and advantage against his man, but he threads the needle and gives him momentum going toward the hoop for a quick finish.
Here’s the type of play we’ve seen so often over the years:
He beats his man off the dribble, gets fouled with the body while drawing the help, maintains body control, and then finds Key perfectly under the hoop. When you see the second angle, you can see he was pretty much throwing this pass blind through the trees, which requires amazing spatial awareness.
His pick and roll can be deadly, especially when he’s running it with someone who plays well above the rim. Here’s an example of him earlier in his career with Jay Huff against Duke and then one this year with Kadin Shedrick against Virginia Tech:
On the first, you can see him slow down and time his drive so that the help defender clears, following Diakite to the three point line. On the second, he pushes the drive deep into the lane, putting Aluma in no man’s land. With both, the pass was quick, deceptive, and perfectly placed.
When defenders respect the oop, he has the blow by potential shown here:
Boston College’s post defender completely retreats, backing away from Huff, and Clark is able to press the advantage gained off of the screen into a drive with a quality, controlled, finish plus the foul. In general, he plays with a crafty skillset where he’ll run the offense most of the game and lull his defender to sleep before quickly deviating:
That’s future NBA player Cole Anthony defending him. Clark makes it appear like the pick and roll didn’t work, as the post defender retreats with the screener and Clark still hasn’t started his drive. Instead of the normal action of going back into the offense, though, Clark waits for the post defender to clear and then presses straight down hill, catching Anthony by surprise, executing a sick behind the back dribble, and finishing acrobatically through contact.
His handle is crisp and the subtlety of his movements can be brilliant. Check this one out:
That’s so nasty. As per normal when defending UVa’s offensive system, defenses can get into a rhythm of anticipating what’s coming next. It sort of lulls you into letting your guard down, and here Clark punctuates this by cutting backdoor when his man is over-pursuing an expected return to the top of the three point line. This puts BC’s off-ball defender in an awkward possession of deciding whether to drop with Kihei or to defend his man on the three point line. That skillful hesi-dribble completely fools him, sending him shooting back toward his man as Clark skates in for the easy lay-up. This is a great example of both branching out from the flow of the offense to create an advantage as well as his brilliance of body control and nuance. One more, just for fun:
Filthy. He denies the ball screen of Huff and uses his quickness to get his defender off balance and uses that to create an advantage driving to the lane – but his defender uses his size and quickness to recover. Clark then appears to relax, bringing the ball back out, and in that moment of relaxation he creates within his defender, blows back by him for the lay-up. Such skillful manipulation of the defense with subtle body movements.
He can be a tenacious and relentless defender who plays with great anticipation. We’ve heard the stories of Ty Jerome throwing a ball at him because of how frustrated he was with his defense in practice. We remember some of his hounding pressure over the years, making life hard on ball handlers. We’ve seen stuff like this:
Where his man attempts to isolate and back him down. During the spin, Kihei picks him so cleanly and it turns into a Beekman run out. Here’s another great one:
He anticipates and jumps this post entry pass off of the motion, which leads to an outlet to him on the run out and he delivers a gorgeous pass to the trailer, Diakite.
His three point shooting has been the subject of some discussion but, aside from his junior year where he shot .323, he shot .341 his freshman season, .375 his sophomore season, and .346 this past year. Not bad. It’s a good enough clip especially for a point guard, and it was literally the best clip of anyone on the roster this past season who got regular playing time.
And I’m not even doing a deep dive on the timeliness on some of his plays or him just outplaying his standard in some big moments, like The Play, his crucial threes against Oregon in the sweet 16, the shot at the end of regulation to beat VT in 2020, his barrage of threes against Duke this past season…
So how could there possibly be any dissent on this guy? He’s an obviously incredibly skilled player who has been a champion, plays the game the right way, is tough, has huge heart and toughness that he wears on his sleeve night in and night out and has been able to carve out a role within the ACC at his size, and brings a wealth of veteran leadership and experience.
There is an issue, though, and it has everything to do with his size. It’s a predictable statement that has often been over-relied on as mindless criticism or overly dismissed as being biased – but there is merit to the way it plays out on the floor. Most of these clips I’ve posted thus far have been incredible plays. Difficult. Wow-type moments. And that’s because they are hard, made even harder by the fact that he’s giving up 3-6 inches against most everyone he plays. Advocates will say, “Yes, and look and how talented he is that he’s still able to accomplish those things.” And that’s absolutely correct, but there’s also a significant flip side in the form of opportunity cost, roster compression, and how opponents attack our defense. I’m going to illustrate these concepts below.
Firstly, and most importantly to a Tony Bennett system, we need to talk about defense. Conventional wisdom is that Clark is simply a great defender, no qualms. In truth, he’s more of a situationally great defender at times, and a poor defender at others. It’s true that he’s got great hands and moves his feet very well, but this seems to have a bigger impact on smaller/quicker players or slower players who don’t play with much strength or who don’t have as tight of a handle. Larger players who have a similar or superior level of athleticism can, and do, target Kihei for his size. This manifests itself in three primary ways.
One: they shoot over him.
Two: they look to drive on/post him.
Three: his lack of length can limit the effectiveness of Pack Line execution.
Historically, he’s partnered well when having many long, elite defenders in the front court to help erase some of these issues. As we’ve gotten more sparse in that regard, these issues have been highlighted, however. I’m going to illustrate all three of these below, but first some numbers to back up the following discussion. In 2019 and 2020, his Defensive Box Plus/Minus was 3.9 and 2.9, respectively. For context, in 2019, that was 5th on the team, just behind Ty Jerome’s 4.6 and well ahead of Kyle Guy’s 2.6. In 2020, this was the worst on the team among starters and bench players. Casey Morsell was a 3.8 that year and Tomas Woldetensae was a 3.9. Fast-forward to 2021, and 2022, his DBPM fell to .2 and .7, respectively. Now, it’s expected that his defensive metrics would decrease as the team’s did, but he was once again last on the team of anyone who got minutes in 2021, and only ahead of Caffaro and Gardner this past year (and Murray and McCorkle but they didn’t see much PT). For context, Reece Beekman held a 5.2 this past season, Armaan Franklin and Kody Stattmann both came in at 1.1. Clark’s defensive points allowed per 100 possessions came in at 105.5, only ahead of Taine Murray and Malachi Poindexter, and well behind Beekman’s 97.4 and Franklin’s 102.8. So let’s flesh out those metrics:
One of the core principles of defense is that when the man you’re responsible for is taking a jump shot, you offer a hard contest of the shot, and then box out. In most cases (Braxton Key on Jarrett Culver not withstanding) the goal isn’t to block the jump shot. Great if you can, but it’s usually unrealistic. The primary goal is to make the jump shooter uncomfortable. Make them think there’s a chance it might be blocked, momentarily distract them, slightly bother them. This can cause slight moments of tensing up, slight alterations in form or feel, etc., resulting in a worse shooting percentage. It’s the reason why it’s so much harder to hit, say, a three pointer, with defense as opposed to shooting with an open rack in the gym. It’s also why shooting the ball with confidence or rhythm after seeing it go through the hoop in the game can improve someone’s shooting %. For those of us who are old enough to remember the NBA Jam, “He’s on fire!”… that’s a real thing.
Kihei Clark is listed at 5’9″. Even if a fully accurate listing, he’s giving up four inches on even a moderately sized 6’1″ point guard. This means that players who have built their NCAA careers going against players typically at least as tall, but normally even taller than they are, have much more room to get their shot off comfortably against Kihei. If they have to rush to get their shot off in time against, say, a 6’3″ player, they can take their comparative time and elevate comfortably against Clark. Most famously we saw this when 6’1″ Carsen Edwards got going with his first two threes in the Elite 8 game:
I anticipate some initial reactions, “But he did that against everyone, even Hunter!” True, but he built that initial confidence and momentum here (and the shots against Hunter were DEEP). The first was just coming off of a screen and not having to worry about being blocked, and the second was a straight isolation one dribble pull up. But this is just the most prominent example – this is a very commonplace occurrence. Here’s 6’1″ Marcus Sasser this year vs. Houston:
The first play he just crossed over and shot comfortably despite the shot clock winding down. The second, you could almost see his eyes light up with his body language, he shot it with 11 seconds to go in the shot clock, and just isolated, took a dribble, stepped back, and fired away. If you’re still having some skepticism around this, try imagining either of these plays where the 6’3″ Beekman or the 6’4″ Franklin are on Sasser as the primary ball defender. How much harder would those shots have been?
It’s not just off the dribble, it’s also being able to recover to contest within the defense or on stuff like long kickouts, etc. Here’s one from 6’1″ Jordan Bohannon from Iowa on a kick out from a long rebound:
Here’s one from the Ohio game last year where briefly goes under a screen because Preston had burned him with the drive and can’t get an effective contest on the three.
I’m not going to keep posting videos on this one thing for fear of beating a dead horse/there’s lot more content to get to, but shooters getting comfortable because they’re unbothered by contests was common. Intuitively as fans, we know this was common. This year, opposing teams had a disproportionate success rate from three point range against us than with their normal shooting ratios. Some of this was also Gardner learning the defense and struggling with stretch 4s (we’ll talk roster compression later), but this was also a significant portion of it. It’s incorrect to simply lament bad luck.
Tale as old as time for the game of basketball; you attempt to isolate size mismatches as best you can. Kihei is no exception to this and, in fact, has been a primary point of focus dating back to 2019. These are from FSU in the ACC Tournament, the last UVa loss of that season. In addition to some team defense looks that we’ll cover later, they really looked to isolate this matchup on the offensive end with 6’1″ David Nichols:
There are several more of these. One of their key offensive strategies in this game was to isolate Clark and play bully ball/get a shot in the lane over the top of him.
Here’s the Ohio NCAAT game last year. First play from scrimmage they use Jason Preston’s size and speed to get a running start for the easy blow by and then the kick out for the open look:
Not long later they ran a design to specifically isolate him in the post:
To draw a direct parallel, here’s a set just a short time later with Clark on the bench and Beekman as the primary ball defender against Preston and Woldetensae as the SG (I’ll also reference this clip again later):
They run a play to get Preston in the post, which is a futile effort against Reece. Yes, he eventually gets the post double from Caffaro, but if you watch him prior, he was making no headway and was looking to pass, not score. Woldo does a good job helping on the backside with Caffaro’s man, and Ohio has to resort to playing iso ball on Hauser (which works, and is another issue we’ve had on the roster the past two years with minus defenders at the 4). But from a guard defensive aspect, this was a perfectly defended sequence.
Bonus film, here’s a great clip of Beekman doing Beekman stuff on Preston later on after he was switched to primary defender:
He not only deflects the pass early on to disrupt the flow of the play, but he sticks with him like glue for the entire drive and strip/blocks the shot in classic Reece fashion. The contrast should hopefully show how a player like Preston can be one who is in position to exploit our team – where the rest of the team has to alter the way they play to account for it, to one that is containable via one-on-one defense, given the right defensive matchup.
Looking at how that carried into this year. The first play of the game against St. Bonaventure, who started no one under 6’3″, they iso Clark in the post with Kyle Lofton:
He misses the shot, but gets a good look, and it illustrates how that was an immediate priority. They also looked to isolate Clark on dribble drives at the end of that game as well, with efficacy.
Here’s a fast break against Wake Forest where 6’2″ Daivien Williamson gets a secondary break and realizes that he’s Clark’s assignment in transition so he forces the issue:
The transition defense is actually in great position, but he realizes that he’s going to have the size mismatch inside without any help defense to bother him, and so he pushes that advantage.
Back to the St. Bonaventure game, another example of this:
This isn’t a sprint out fast break, it’s a secondary break, but Lofton realizes that the help defense is still organizing and isn’t set and so he just builds up a head of steam and flies right by Kihei.
So, this is absolutely a problem against the right teams. The Pack Line is designed in such a way that help defense and team awareness can assist with one-on-one matchups, but when you have a matchup that is so often exploitable by the opposing team in the wrong matchup, the team is often in scramble mode to help protect that leak. That often provides trickle downs to things like, Shedrick picking up extra fouls, rebounding trouble when someone has to help off of their man, open jump shots, etc. Speaking of team defense…
I just spent a little time talking about how the Pack Line often strives to provide extra help in certain areas while the off-ball defenders make smart rotations and take up space such that the defense as a whole is able to recover prior to the offense being able to punish the rotations. In one of the clips earlier, I showed an example of this, where Preston attempted to post Beekman and, even though he didn’t need the assistance, Caffaro came over to double. The off-ball defender, 6’5″ Tomas Woldetensae, fronts the post. This causes Ohio to have to pass the ball back out and reset, rather than Preston trying to thread that needle over three defenders to hit his teammate in the post. Let’s look again, paying close attention at how Woldetensae discourages and denies an entry pass to a much larger player:
All-in-all, that was a great defensive set that just didn’t work out. Now, by comparison, I want to look at a play from the Wake Forest game this year where Kihei is in an almost identical position. When the post is doubled and pause at 37:14:
There are a good number of issues here. Clark’s eyes are locked on the double team rather than being on a swivel, he’s too far up the lane defending the pass to his man and hasn’t shifted down to interfere with the baseline cutter. If we remember how Tomas played it, he left his man entirely and made sure he stayed in front of the post player. Gardner is probably a little too high and needs to drop a little deeper to make the pass to Kihei’s man more difficult while being able to recover to his own, but he’s in relatively similar position as Hauser was in the first clip. But, really, there just wasn’t going to be much Kihei was going to be able to do there. The trap even worked at first, Williams had to regroup and survey, but the passing lanes and angles were just wide open and, unlike where Tomas was able to front the post player and make the opposing team decide against having to make an accurate pass out of the double team, Williams had a much wider window to pass that ball for the easy dunk.
Here’s a variant against Notre Dame:
This is just way too easy. On this play Notre Dame doesn’t do anything exotic to get Clark isolated on the 6’10’ Nate Laszewski. It’s simply a low urgency ball screen that Clark and Gardner should be fighting to keep from swapping but, instead, quickly resign to swapping. Immediately recognizing the mismatch, watch how Laszewski just makes a beeline to the post and holds his hand up for the easy lob and finish.
The next example is against Virginia Tech where Keve Aluma gets the ball on a back door cut.
Now it should be pointed out that this is terrible defense by Caffaro and the play is his fault. He way over hedges on the ball screen when the dribbler doesn’t even have the ball, allowing Aluma just a free cut to the lane. But Clark’s role in the defense here is to at least make this finish somewhat difficult (or to force a pass out to his man). Try to take a charge, contest the shot, etc. Make the finish somewhat uncomfortable. There just wasn’t anything that was going to be done in this case, though.
Last example of this is from the Ohio game last year:
This is a killer and is the kind of thing, from my experience, that drives coaches crazy. This is a well defended play where Hauser sags off of his man to help Beekman with the drive and then gets out for an effective contest as Ohio settles for a long three pointer with plenty of time on the shot clock. Clark doesn’t box out as he should but is still in position for the rebound. 6’3″ Lunden McDay easily goes over him to grab the board and then draws the foul on Huff while he finishes the put back. Not only does this play cost your team two points, it puts a foul (a third in this case) on your 7’1″ NBA big man and sends him to the bench.
All of these examples I chose because they’re not at all uncommon. They’re not always obvious because sometimes when a player makes a long shot we just think, “oh, unlucky” or when the team defense doesn’t execute it’s hard to always pinpoint real time what led to the issue since we’re often ball watching as observers. But all three of these defensive leak categories regularly attribute to the defensive metrics that I mentioned above.
Moving on from defense, when I talk about opportunity cost, I mean this as an offensive concept. As I discussed earlier, Kihei grew into a solid three point shooter in all but his third year. He also makes some miraculous finishes in the lane. There are, however, a good number of plays that would work or that offer opportunity that he is unable to attempt or take advantage of because of the length that he gives up.
As I mentioned earlier, most jump shooters don’t regularly get their shots blocked or don’t struggle to get the shot off, it’s more the challenge of getting enough space to take a good shot without a strong contest. Kihei, on the other hand, does run a greater threat of getting his jumper blocked. Here’s an example on a three vs. North Texas:
And here’s a jumper from the elbow against Virginia Tech:
In both of those circumstances, most all major conference guards would have been able to get those shots off (whether they made them or not is a different story). The North Texas shot, specifically, was open. The problem is that this causes him to hesitate and/or not be able to shoot some open shots that are organically created through the offense.
Here’s a great example of this against JMU:
Now the good news is that he does a good job directing traffic and getting Taine to send the ball to Reece in the corner for a made three. The problem is that he had a wide open shot, really as wide open as you can get in college hoops, and passed it up through some combination of hesitancy and worrying about a contest. It’s never a guarantee that the ball is going to get to Beekman to even take the shot when you forego such an open look – and even if it does, Kihei shot at a better % from three than Beekman did this past year, especially at that point of the season. So that corner look for Reece was a less preferable look than the straight on shot from Kihei anyway.
Here’s one against Houston:
There are three quality opportunities for him to shoot a three on this play. On the secondary break he’s open on the pass from Beekman and rather than shooting (at a time in the game when we needed an offensive spark), he fakes a pass to Stattmann and resets. Later on, he’s wide open off of a screen and, despite bobbling the ball, still has a lot of time but appears uninterested in shooting over Houston’s length, and then at the end of the shot clock he’s the recipient of a great Beekman find from the baseline and has another open look but hesitates, then pump fakes and tries to take two guys on the drive only to have it blocked out of bounds. The opportunity cost here was not taking a quality shot on the break when half court offense was struggling, not taking an opportunity that came out of the executed offense, and not taking a quality opportunity generated by a great individual play created by a teammate. When we talk about bogging an offense down, this is it.
One last example below against St. Bonaventure in the NIT this year. He’d already been blocked from three once earlier in the game and was 0-7 from the floor, primarily due to Lofton’s size and quickness combo. Here, the offense works and he gets a look but decides against shooting. The result is that they have to just give the ball to Beekman and hope he can create some offense off the dribble at the end of the shot clock and he gets hit with the charge:
Other teams, at least well-coached ones, also know this about Kihei and use it to their advantage in their scouting reports. FSU notably took this to extremes in the 2019 ACC Tournament. Knowing that Kihei was reluctant to shoot from the half court and was bothered by lengthy contests, they sagged off of him intensely to help stop other offensive options. Here’s one example, pause at 5:55:
Look how far away from Clark the 6’4″ Trent Forrest (#3) is. If De’Andre Hunter wanted to drive, there was literally nowhere for him to go. Forrest had compressed down on him entirely, unworried about the pass out to Clark. Meanwhile, notice Ty Jerome is nowhere to be found on screen, he’s playing so far outside of the three point line and the 6’7″ Terance Mann is way out on him and only comes into the screen late. Hunter makes a great play and shoots a quality jumper from where he catches it – but, given FSU’s defense, that was realistically his only option aside from passing the ball back out. The defensive strategy was clear… and very impactful throughout that game.
Here’s last year vs. Ohio in the NCAAT:
It looks pretty similar. The offense sets up a post up for Sam Hauser and then clears out. That entire side is empty with Kihei at the top of the three point line. Watch how far Preston sags in to distract and bother Hauser’s post move and watch how much ground he has to cover when Hauser passes it back out to Clark. He’s got length but there’s plenty of room there for Clark to shoot, which he should have done. Instead, he passes it back to Hauser who has run back out to the three point line to take a contested shot against set defense.
Fast forward to this year – this is basically the exact same look against Miami, with Gardner in the post but instead of Kihei at the top of the three point line, it’s Stattmann:
Gardner being so effective in the post eventually forces the Miami hand on the double team and as soon as the help comes, Gardner kicks it out. Stattmann catches the ball ready to shoot and let’s it rip without a second thought.
I’ve been primarily talking about jump shooting and the three point line, but the same concept applies to finishing in the paint. I showed earlier how crafty Kihei can be down there at creating space and finishing, but those are really difficult shots. For all of those there are also many where he ends up dribbling around baseline being umbrellaed by post players to have to dribble it back out. And often, when the shot clock or game clock forces his hand, you get blocks like I showed earlier vs. Houston or at the end of the St. Bonaventure game. I don’t think there’s a ton of value in scrounging up many clips of those moments as they are often more visible and memorable, but for a contrast, I will show a Beekman play that highlights the potential alternative:
#21 Osun Osunniyi is the 6’10” shot blocker that waved to our fans at the end of the game and that’s Reece Beekman just going right at him and finishing over him (while being fouled and it not being called).
This one against VT is just for fun and because it gets me fired up (there were many of these this year):
Good luck, Keve. Anyway, that’s the kind of finishing we do have on roster at the PG position.
The last thing I want to talk about is this concept of roster compression. Back in 2019 at the height of his powers during the NCAA Tournament run, Clark was surrounded by three NBA quality snipers in Jerome, Guy, and Hunter, and two NBA quality rim protectors in Hunter and Diakite (and sometimes Key as well). Still, not every matchup was his cup of tea. He really struggled against Carsen Edwards, who was just as quick as he was but bigger, stronger, and able to pull up from anywhere. Clark played a tournament low 24 minutes in that game, with CTB deciding to give Jack Salt a lot of run to be physical with the 7’3″ Matt Haarms. Clark also struggled with Texas Tech in the title game. Matt Mooney and Davide Moretti were both 6’3″, and Mooney played incredibly physically and Moretti was a sniper. The team played is best in that game and pulled away in OT when Clark was out of the game and Braxton Key was in it. But, he was fantastic against Oregon at getting under Payton Pritchard and keeping him from getting comfortable, and he put on a master class against Midwest Regional MOP Jared Harper for Auburn. It was very matchup dependent. I will definitely focus on this run more in a later post.
In 2020, which I think was actually Kihei’s greatest individual season, he was the only quality point guard on the roster and was joined by an experienced, athletic, and talented front court in Key, Diakite, and Huff (potentially our best defensive front court ever). We had a brand new backcourt in Casey Morsell and Tomas Woldetensae. On this team, he was the 4th most efficient player in PER and had the majority of the offensive creation responsibilities on his shoulders. The team was on fire to close the COVID-shortened season, primarily on the back of their fantastic team defense. Their offense was still metrically inefficient, but it was rounding into form at the end of the season to compliment their defense. They would have been a tough out in the post season.
2021 and 2022 were different. Firstly, the defensive impact at the 3-4 positions were reduced. The team still had Huff in 2021 and Shedrick emerged as a great rim protector in 2022, but Diakite was replaced by Sam Hauser and Jayden Gardner, respectively – conceding a lot of length and rim protection. Key was replaced by Trey Murphy, who was athletic but not nearly as physical on defense or as well versed in the defensive execution, and Armaan Franklin, who was undersized at 3 and playing outside of his ideal position. Secondly, Reece Beekman joined the team at the point guard position. When all is said and done, Reece will be one of the best defenders the program has seen, possibly the best defender at the guard position that we’ve had, and has been making plays like the one I showed on Preston earlier throughout his career. In 2021, he was a slightly less efficient player than Kihei via PER, but had a higher BP/M and was much better defensively. This past season, his 18.2 PER was third on the team, and ahead of Kihei’s 13.0, his offensive Plus/Minus was a little better at 2.4 vs. 1.5 and his defensive Plus/Minus was considerably better at 5.2 vs. .7.
In 2021 CTB had a tough decision to make on how he wanted to distribute time between his veteran PG and his talented freshman. Rather than choose, he made the decision to start and play both 29 minutes plus per game. A bold strategy, Cotton. On the surface, it made sense. Casey Morsell, our highly recruited shooting guard was also struggling from outside and was far less efficient than either Beekman or Clark. Our 3-5 players, Trey Murphy, Sam Hauser, and Jay Huff, uniquely could all shoot effectively from out side at .433, .417, and .387 respectively (better than everyone on our roster this past season). Ostensibly, the theory was to put two ball handlers around three great shooters and let them create shots for them. The problem was, it relegated this guy to only 13.5 minutes per game:
Tomas Woldetensae was an absolute sniper. He shot .417 from three on 55 attempts that year and was exactly what that team needed in terms of starter’s minutes at the two position. His presence opened up the floor not just from a shot making perspective, but creating space for the 3-5 to operate. I showed some clips earlier of teams sagging off of Kihei. In 2021, they did the same thing with Reece and when both were on the floor, it could be a quagmire. We’re going to take a look at some of the clips from the Ohio game last year to illustrate:
In this clip, Preston is playing down by the free throw line when Beekman is setting up the offense, not really giving the three pointer any mind. This puts him in perfect position to bother Hauser on his move and make him pull up when he does for a difficult jump shot.
This is a perfect example right here. Both Preston and McDay are giving Beekman and Clark such a huge cushion around the perimeter. When Clark has the ball outside of the three point line, McDay is down at the free throw line for most of the possession, just clogging things up, making sure nothing happens with a drive. Both defenders comfortably (and slowly, really) play under ball screens without worry about the three pointer. The result is a completely stalled possession that results in Trey Murphy having to hoist one up at the end of the shot clock.
Here’s another one where Preston is playing down by the block when Reece is out near the three point line off the ball. McDay is continuing to give Kihei that buffer down by the foul line. As Kihei gets into the lane, the Ohio players just stay home and get tall and even though Clark makes a solid pass to a cutting Murphy, nothing has happened to get the Ohio players out of defensive position and they’re there for the block.
This game was a microcosm of how teams defended us all of that season. We had an all NBA front court but because neither of our guards were a threat from the outside, teams could sag off, help, muddy the waters. Tomas was the perfect solution to that problem as his outside shot had to be pressed and respected, and with him on the court, both Kihei and Beekman had more room to create/find/press an advantage as the solitary point guard.
This was a common topic of conversation throughout the season and one argument that would often be raised is that Tomas was a worse defender than both point guards. This was not true. His defensive B/PM of 2.5 WAS worse than Beekman’s 4.0, but it was considerably better than Clark’s .2 and I showed a clip earlier illustrating his strong off-ball defense. Tomas was not an amazing defender but he was a quality one and his 6’5″ frame caused more issues for opposing players. When he was on the floor, we were a better defensive team than when he wasn’t (and a much better offensive team). His PER was also 16.0 compared to Clark’s 12.8 and Beekman’s 11.2 and his offensive BP/M was 2.3 compared to Clark’s .6 and Beekman’s -.5.
In my previous post I talked a lot about the utilization of our bench this past season and my confusion around Igor Milicic’s lack of playing time. There are many things behind the scenes that could explain that. But this, the lack of playing Tomas starter’s minutes in 2020-2021 is the one thing, so far, I’m confident in saying was a mistake by CTB and his staff. It’s like his kryptonite… he can’t not play Kihei. It’s not like Tomas wasn’t seeing the floor some, he was getting 13.5 mpg, and we already had a full season of him previously where he played a full 27.1 mpg. Tomas should have played at least that amount at SG in 2021, and I firmly believe that if he had, they would have advanced past Ohio in the round of 64. I have a feeling, and this is speculation, that because they loved what Reece brought to the table on defense so much, and because Clark was a veteran who CTB trusted, that explains the minute distribution. Unfortunately, the overlap in their skillsets did not lend to complimentary basketball within the context of the roster. If we had played them both solely at point guard at roughly even minutes, mixing Kihei in when we needed more offense and Reece in when we needed that size/lock down on defense, that would have been the ideal solution.
With 2022 came a similar but new challenge. We lost our entire front court, swapping Jayden Gardner for Sam Hauser, and Kadin Shedrick for Jay Huff. The 6’11” Shedrick quietly was our most efficient player in terms of PER at 23.7 and was second on the team in BP/M at 5.7 to Beekman’s 7.6 (technically Milicic was second at 6.5 but I’m just discussing those who played key minutes right now). The 6’7″ Gardner was second on the team in PER at 22.0 and third on the team in BP/M, but his was an extreme mix of both being our most effective offensive player – just pass him the ball and clear out in the mid-range and he was likely to get you a bucket – and our least effective defensive player – he really struggled defending the 4 in ACC play. Beekman was our best player in BP/M and third in PER, clearly taking over the reigns as the best point guard on the roster, especially with what should have been DPOY play. But, unlike in 2021 where the Clark/Beekman combo was keeping the better Woldetensae on the bench, both were within our top 5 players this year. Clark’s 13.0 PER was 5th on the team among players who saw more than 100 minutes, and his BP/M was 4th. Our 3, Armaan Franklin, was 4th in PER at 13.9, and 5th in BP/M at 1.7. After that, there was a drop to Kody Stattmann’s .9 BPM, although his defensive efficiency was an improvement over Clark’s and was on par with Franklin’s.
So, those are a lot of numbers, but they’re intended to illustrate that, unlike 2021 (and discounting the Igor conundrum outlined in my previous post), metrically our core starting lineup was in synch with the one we utilized and was likely the best combined team that we could field. But there were still issues. Because we were simply playing the best five players, Armaan Franklin, best suited for the 2 position, played the 3 position almost all year. This meant he was guarded by more length than he would be normally and also meant he played less with the ball in his hands. It also meant that our starting lineup went: 5’9″, 6’3″, 6’4″, 6’7″, 6’11”. Practically speaking, that means we were undersized compared to most rosters we would face against major competition at the 1, the 3, and the 4 positions, which had a cumulative effect. Furthermore, when the 6’7″ Stattmann would come in, it was more often for Gardner, or even Shedrick/Caffaro, than it was for Beekman or Clark; even more reducing our team size.
It should come as no surprise then, that the teams we over performed against vs. general expectations (Miami, North Texas, and Virginia Tech) were some of our smaller opponents and teams we under performed against vs. general expectations (UNC, Florida State, NC State) carried significant roster size advantages (I should note here that the Duke victory on the road was a complete anomaly and we played out of our minds to win that one… it’s really the one exception that I could find).
Some anecdotal illustrations of this:
This is from the ACC Tournament. UNC gives the bulk of their minutes to: 6’0″ RJ Davis, 6’4″ Caleb Love, 6’8″ Leaky Black, 6’9″ Brady Manek, and 6’10” Armando Bacot. Now there are exceptions to every rule but Kihei is usually pretty stellar against anyone 6ft and under, and Davis is kind of a borderline size mismatch for him. Beekman is a good cover against the 6’4″ Love and can even go a little bigger (he did a good job against Alondis Williams vs. Wake which we’ll talk about later). But playing Franklin at the 3 means he’s giving up 4 inches to Black, and Gardner is already undersized at the 4, giving up 2 inches to Manek. Not to mention that Bacot plays bigger than his height with his physicality. On this play we see solid team defense, although that’s a pretty easy entry pass from Black to Bacot over Franklin. Caffaro is in because of his physicality, and Bacot settles for a jump hook while fading away from the hoop. He can certainly make that shot, but UVa would be happy for him to live with those. The problem is, Manek crashes from the off side, uses his size to secure the rebound from Gardner and then completes a nice move to finish with a reverse lay-up on the other side of the rim. Gardner could have and should have boxed out, but he was also in a position that most of our historic 4s would have been able to grab here.
As the shot clock is running down, Gardner gets caught on Black’s screen but Manek bobbles the ball, and yet he still has time to collect himself and is unbothered by Gardner’s contest.
Let’s look at a clip from the Wake Forest game. Wake started 6’2″ Daivien Williamson, 6’5″ Alondis Williams, 6’8″ Isaiah Mucius, 6’9″ Jake Laravia, and 7’0″ Dallas Walton. This was a size match up nightmare as they outsized us across all 5 positions among their starting 5 for a total of 1ft 2 inches of combined height differential.
I think that clip above underscores the roster compression issue perhaps more than any other I’ve shown so far. Wake doesn’t look like they’re having to exert much effort or that it’s very difficult to defend this set. Franklin even initially has a solid advantage over Mucius after his first dribble or two, but Mucius’s length is so oppressive he can easily recover without having to worry about Franklin shooting over him. Meanwhile, Williamson is just giving Kihei all of the buffer in the world and using his own comparative length to make Kihei have to settle for a hotly contested fade away at the end of the shot clock.
So let’s switch, then, and look at the Miami game: Miami starts 5’11” Charlie Moore, 6’3″ Isaiah Wong, 6’5″ Kameron McGusty, 6’6″ Jordan Miller, and 6’10” Sam Waardenburg. They align so similarly with our starting 5 size-wise, and dealing with a 5’11” player is a walk in the park for Kihei:
Compare this to some of those hesitation clips I was showing earlier against Houston, St. Bonaventure, Ohio, etc. Look at how aggressively and confidently he’s hunting his shot within the flow of the offense. And then:
His threat to shoot sets up this drive and the fact that he’s a threat to finish over his man draws help, leaving Gardner wide open and setting the stage for those eagle baseline eyes we all know and love from Kihei. Basically, he’s a nightmare matchup for a team like Miami and their roster size makes everything easier for us, despite the fact that they were a VERY skilled, Elite 8 team this year that created mismatches against other teams.
Now I want to go back to that Wake game for a second and show what can happen when you decompress the roster, as needed. I showed this as one continuous clip when discussing Milicic previously, but there are a couple of plays that I want to highlight. If we recall, there was a window in this game where we played a line up of Beekman (6’3″), Franklin (6’4″), Stattmann (6’7″), Milicic (6’10”), Caffaro (7’0″):
Now, instead of the 6’8″ Mucius guarding Franklin, this is the much more comparably sized Alondis Williams at 6’5″. Franklin gets his shot working without as much fear of the contest.
On defense, you still have Beekman on Williams because he’s awesome like that, but now you have Franklin with a 2 inch advantage on Williamson and Stattmann with much more comparable length on Mucius. We can see how, much like Wake was doing to us earlier, their options and flow are more limited against this line up and they end up settling for a toughly contested fade away shot that misses. It’s just great defense.
And now here you have Mucius who has been used to playing screens differently with his length, getting caught under the screen and not getting out to Stattmann in time. This is the same play they just ran for Franklin two clips before and they had been running, as normal, through their offense all game – but it was more effective with our increased size in there.
I can’t stress enough how dominant and good Franklin looked in this widow playing at the 2 position. He was physical with Williamson on defense, he took a charge on Williams, he was shooting much more confidently and hit two threes, he was creating for others off of the dribble… he was thriving as a result of not giving up a ton of size to his man. This lineup out scored Wake Forest on aggregate by 9 points over the span of about 8-9 minutes in the first half (2 of those being with Shedrick in instead of Caffaro) and never saw the court together again in the second half. We lost the game by 8 points, meaning that our lineups with either Clark, Gardner, or both on the floor were outscored by 17 points in total.
My point in all of this is that matchups are really important. You might have 5 players who are strictly better than the other players on the roster, who show out that way in practice even, but who struggle against certain opponents and thrive against others. And I would argue that over the past two seasons, we have not done a great job of taking that into account with regard to Kihei (Gardner has the potential to fall into this category next year as well).
No matter what your predispositions coming into reading this, I hope you’ve been able to tell that my approach to this has been analytical and from just trying to think about success factors for the team. This is not intended to be a smear job. I love Kihei Clark the player and what he’s meant for this team. As I said earlier, I’m next going to do a deep dive into just how important he was during that championship run. The answer is: very. He has accomplished so much while he’s been here: National Champion, two-time ACC Regular Season Champion, and who knows what we might have accomplished if not for COVID cutting short the 2020 season and cutting short the 2021 ACC Tournament. He knows the system, he plays unselfishly, he appears to be a fantastic teammate and leader who helps to instill the culture of the team to new players. He’s also a wizard with the ball who has moments, games even, of complete brilliance and if he was even just 3-4 inches taller I shudder to think what that would have meant for our opponents over the past 3 years, especially.
Do I think we should be rooting for him to return in 2022-2023? Hypothetically, the answer is yes. If he and CTB were willing to play him as a true backup to Reece, maybe 10 minutes a game max in most games and then scale those minutes situationally against certain opponents (like against Miami, or if we face the Jared Harpers of the world, need to break the press, salt away some free throws, etc.), then, absolutely! He’s an ideal Swiss Army Knife piece that can solve so many questions and his presence in the locker room with the incoming Freshmen would be so valuable (this is all assuming that London Johnson isn’t going to be re-classifying to this coming year). We also don’t have that level of ball handling slated to join the roster in case Reece fouls out or needs a rest, etc.
However, given our history over the last two years of being unwilling to moderate his minutes, regardless of the need or situation, then I would be very reluctant. Can I really imagine a world where Kihei Clark starts four full seasons, returns for a 5th and doesn’t play 30+ minutes per game? I cannot. Beekman is a true star at the position with almost unrivaled physical ability who will continue to grow. We need him on the court as much as possible. Franklin thrives at the 2 and is much better suited for it, plus we have Isaac McKneely coming into the fold and I have no doubt we will want plenty of his shooting at times next year. We need those guys playing their natural positions. In order to continue to grow the roster and the program, we would need one of the heroes and most recognizable players in recent history to become a role player, and our coach to be willing to play him as such.
Like I said, it’s complicated.