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Returning Player Refresher: Gary Clark

This is Cary Clark’s team. That’s not a problem at all.

NCAA Basketball: Cincinnati at Tulane Stephen Lew-USA TODAY Sports

If the 2016-17 Cincinnati Bearcats were Troy Caupain’s team, then this year’s version belongs to Gary Clark. Kyle Washington may also be a senior and Jacob Evans could be the biggest star, but Clark is the straw that stirs the drink. He has filled that underlying and unassuming role since he got on campus, starting in 101 games over the last three years. As he ventures out for his final season, Clark has a chance to be the leader for one of the best Mick Cronin teams.

Clark isn’t your typical MVP, but that’s the role he was born to play for the Bearcats. Over the course of three seasons he has been nothing but consistent, and that continued last season when he improved offensively while continuing his fine work on the boards and defense.

It is the last two categories where Clark shines the most. The 2016 American Athletic Conference Defensive Player of the Year posted his third-straight campaign with a defensive rating below 92 last season, although the 91.9 reading was a career-high and coupled that with the best offensive rating of his three years (126.9). There’s no reason to worry, however. Clark didn’t suddenly decide he wanted to be an offensive guy, as he ranked second on the team in defensive rating and had more defensive win shares (2.4) than anyone else on the roster.

Clark’s defensive stylings are built on his instincts, quick hands and long frame. He reads opposing players well, is active and able to disrupt the path of the ball whether its being dribbled, passed or shot. He combined for 3.0 steals and blocks per game last season, although his block and steal percentages were both the lowest of his career. But that’s where numbers come up short in player evaluation, because when you needed a stop, Clark was the guy to produce it.

The same could be said of a rebound, no matter what side of the floor you want to discuss. Clark averaged a healthy 7.9 boards per game, but he didn’t just pad his totals with defensive boards, he also worked hard on the offensive glass. In fact, the always active offensive rebounder ranked second in the AAC in the category, reaching past 100 for the second-straight season. His rebounding totals were down from the previous season, but that can be partially put on the arrival of Washington, a stellar rebounder in his own right.

Clark’s effort on the offensive boards led to more than a few buckets, which came a bit more frequently to Clark in his junior season as his usage rate hit an all-time high of 18.7 percent. While his scoring total only elevated slightly (10.8 from 10.4), Clark expanded his range, taking more than one three a game, while improving his ability to finish around the rim. He set a personal best in field goal percentage (.529) thanks to lethally efficient work close to the basket, while his true shooting (.585) and effective field goal (.554) percentages were both the best of his career. With a PER of 24.9 to boot, Clark was as well rounded a player as you could find in the AAC.

Cronin and the Bearcats are going to get the same type of player this season. We know who Clark is, and its more than just a problem. He’s a pillar of consistent excellence who can take over games on defense, clean the glass and provide a steady and improved offensive game. And now he’s the undisputed leader of the team.