Kihei Clark’s hustle and quick reaction saved Virginia’s season. He didn’t make the buzzer-beater that sent the South Region final into overtime, but Clark’s scramble for a loose ball and alert pass to Mamadi Diakite was dubbed the “play of the century” by a teammate.
Not bad for a diminutive freshman who was rated in 247Sports composite recruiting rankings as the 406th recruit nationally last season, 61st among point guards. Clark chose Virginia after originally committing to UC Davis, his only other Division I offer.
Uncovering hidden gems and developing that talent has become the hallmark of Tony Bennett’s program. Bennett has built one of the most consistent and stable programs in college basketball, not with one-and-done talent but by finding players that fit his system and style of play.
The Cavs’ best player, sophomore wing De’Andre Hunter, is projected to be an NBA lottery pick this spring, but he redshirted two years ago and didn’t start a single game as a freshman.
Virginia’s 2016 freshman class featured four top-100 recruits — Hunter, Kyle Guy, Ty Jerome and Jay Huff — that make up the backbone of this Final Four team.
Bennett does a masterful job of getting buy-in from players in a system that often gets labeled boring by outsiders.
Defense is the hallmark of Bennett’s program. He has coached five teams that finished No. 1 nationally in scoring defense, including this season. Virginia is 87-2 when holding opponents under 50 points in Bennett’s tenure.
“Offense can come and go,” Bennett said. “You hang your hat on that defense and hopefully you get enough offense.”
The Cavs also are known for their offensive efficiency. They play at a snail’s pace. They rank last in Division I — 353rd — in possessions per game at 60.6, according to KenPom.com.
“For us, it’s always about trying to get the best shot possible,” Jerome said. “If that comes quicker in the shot clock, that’s fine. Or if that comes late, that’s fine, too. And then it’s always about just trying to make them take a tough shot. That’s our motto: Make them take a tough shot and get a good shot. Whatever pace that comes at, we’re fine with.”