The Cavaliers play their opener Monday night against North Carolina Central at John Paul Jones Arena.
“Obviously Kihei and I have been together forever, right?” Bennett said of his 5-foot-10 graduate point guard. “Which is a good thing, a great thing.”
With Clark as the steadying presence on the court and in the locker room, the Cavaliers enter the season with their entire starting lineup back and seeking to reclaim their standing as one of the preeminent programs in the country following a trip to the NIT.
It was the first time since 2013 the Cavaliers did not participate in the NCAA tournament, save for 2020 when no postseason was held at the start of the coronavirus pandemic.
The disheartening finish not only fell well short of the standard Bennett has established at Virginia but also compelled Clark to come back for his final season of eligibility, with aspirations for another deep run in the NCAA tournament to close a decorated career.
He also spoke extensively with Jayden Gardner, a starting forward who transferred to Virginia from East Carolina following the 2020-21 season, about coming back. Gardner led the Cavaliers in scoring (15.3 points per game) and rebounding (6.4) and also had been weighing whether to return for a fifth year.
“I think early on, like my first and second year, obviously a fifth year wasn’t really in my mind because, I’m not going to lie, just thinking I’m staying healthy,” Clark said. “But then covid happened, and I got blessed to be able to come back. I mean especially me and Jayden, being our fifth years, we talked about what each other was doing, and obviously it played a role.”
Last season Clark was third in scoring (10 points per game) and second in assists (4.4) for the Cavaliers while ceding time as the primary ballhandler to Reece Beekman. Now a junior, the 6-3 guard led the conference in assist-to-turnover ratio (3.6) and steals (2.1) on the way to being named to the all-defensive team.
But rather than stew over the modification in his duties, Clark embraced being asked to lead in other ways. He became the first player teammates would seek out when they were uncertain about positioning in Bennett’s pack-line defense.
Gardner and guard Armaan Franklin, in particular, benefited from Clark’s guidance. They were newcomers learning the nuances of a defensive alignment that places a premium on limiting touches in the painted area and forcing opponents into one field goal attempt.
“Our focus should be on getting better as a unit and building our chemistry, building it through our defense,” Gardner said. “Just trying to get better every day because we know that we fell short last year, but we’re just trying get better so we don’t have to be in that same position.”
Gardner and the rest of the Cavaliers continue to lean on Clark for advice on how to forge the camaraderie necessary for a run at an NCAA tournament title. Clark is uniquely qualified to provide direction in that regard as the only player left from Virginia’s national championship team in 2019.
At the start of that season, Clark was coming off the bench but so impressed Bennett with his moxie that he ascended into the starting lineup a little more than halfway through the year. Clark wound up starting 20 games, sharing point guard responsibilities with Ty Jerome.
His presence on the court was never more meaningful than March 30, 2019, in the NCAA tournament’s region final in Louisville.
With the final seconds ticking off in regulation against Purdue, Clark gathered a loose ball rolling toward midcourt, turned and delivered a pass to Mamadi Diakite, whose jumper at the buzzer forced overtime. The Cavaliers went on to win, 80-75, and advance to the Final Four in Minneapolis.
The sequence remains one of the most consequential in program history.
“I think ultimately to get back to the [NCAA] tournament, that’s everybody’s goal,” Clark said. “Before that like maybe winning the ACC regular season, the ACC championship from the ACC tournament, just those small goals, but ultimately making it back to the tournament would be nice. I thought last year was a little bit of a disappointment, but we look forward to this year.”