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With an improved jump shot, what role will Kihei Clark play in this year's UVA offense?
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With an improved jump shot, what role will Kihei Clark play in this year's UVA offense?

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CHARLOTTESVILLE — When most Virginia basketball players headed home after last season ended, completing their semester remotely, Kihei Clark hung around. He had work to do.

“We worked on my shot every day, before class or after class,” Clark, UVA’s senior point guard, said this week. “We got into the gym and worked on my jumper.”

Clark, a 38% career shooter at Virginia, retooled his shooting form to be “more compact and efficient,” coach Tony Bennett said.

Clark, who will open his fourth season as a starter when No. 25 Virginia hosts Navy on Tuesday night, is the unquestioned veteran leader of this year’s team. And, with pesky on-ball defensive skills and experience at the top of Bennett’s pack-line defense, he considers himself the Cavaliers’ “anchor” on that end of the court.

The question going into this season is: What will his role be on offense? How much will UVA rely on his improved outside shooting? The answer figures to emerge over time.

“I think there’s a newness to this team,” Bennett said. “And so we’re still forging our identity. And you say that every year at this time, but especially with a team that’s newer.”

Virginia lost its top scorers — Sam Hauser, Jay Huff and Trey Murphy III — from last season, along with most of its perimeter shooting.

It added two transfers in forward Jayden Gardner (East Carolina) and guard Armaan Franklin (Indiana). Gardner and Kadin Shedrick should give the Cavaliers some low-post scoring punch, while Franklin is a skilled outside shooter.

Sophomore guard Reece Beekman is an effective drive-to-the-rim scorer who, like Clark, focused on improving his jump shot this offseason.

The pieces around Clark could enable him to play more of the complementary role he took on as a freshman and for much of last season. But he also may need to be more of a scorer, the way he was his sophomore season.

“That’s going to be important for us,” Bennett said. “We lost a lot of our 3-point shooting, so … I’m sure people will test us in that area. And there’s been some practices and scrimmages where we’ve hit some shots and some where we haven’t, but you got to be willing to take them, and I see that in Kihei.”

Clark has improved his overall field goal percentage each season in college, from 35 as a freshman to 37.5 as a sophomore and then 41.1 last year. But his 3-point shooting dropped last season. He made just 32.3% of his 62 attempts beyond the arc, both career lows.

As a freshman, Clark started 20 games for the national championship team, but with Ty Jerome a skilled ballhandler and Jerome, Kyle Guy and De’Andre Hunter the team’s top scoring options, Clark flourished in a complementary role. He took just 4.1 shots per game.

The following season, with the big three off to the NBA, Virginia needed Clark to expand his scoring role. He averaged a career-high 10.8 points on 9.3 shots per game for a team that was 23-7 and had won eight straight when the season abruptly ended because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Last year, with Hauser and Huff shouldering the scoring load, Clark’s offensive responsibility was somewhere in between. He averaged 95 points on 8.3 shots per outing, while leading UVA in assists for the second straight season. The Cavaliers won the ACC regular-season title, had to drop out of the league tournament because of a positive COVID test, then lost in the first round of the NCAA tournament to Ohio.

Clark is anticipating a similar role this year.

“Offensively, just running the offense, being aggressive when I need to be and making plays when I need to,” Clark said. “And just make my open shots.”

mbarber@timesdispatch.com

Twitter: @RTD_MikeBarber

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