On Tuesday, Gary Clark scored 11 points and grabbed four rebounds while playing a career-high in minutes. The only problem was, it wasn’t for the Cincinnati Bearcats. Instead of strapping on the red of UC, Clark was repping the red of the NBA’s Houston Rockets. While seeing him get a shot at the professional level is great for Bearcat supporters, it is also a harsh reminder that for the first time since 2014, the Bearcats are entering a season without Clark on the roster.
In the year before Clark’s introduction, the Bearcats were playing their first season in the American Athletic Conference. In Clark’s final campaign, they finally won that conference, both in the regular season and during the league tournament. Clark helped build that championship winning team and was easily the most important player of the last four years for the program. Replacing him will take time and will be the most difficult part of Mick Cronin’s job this year and the years to follow.
What the Bearcats lost
Clark was named the AAC’s player of the year last spring, but its not like he waited until his final season to stand out. He was a two-time defensive player of the year and made it to the all-league team twice as well (second in 2016 and first in 2018). As long as Clark was on the floor, the Bearcats had a chance to win and win they did. They went 106-33 during Clark’s four years and the 6’8” forward from Smithfield, North Carolina supplied 23.7 win shares along the way. He was the best player on some of the best teams in program history and helped UC win 30 games in back-to-back seasons for the first time ever.
Clark was everything a UC player is supposed to be. A fantastic defender, aggressive rebounder and constantly evolving offensive contributor, Clark may not have the program records of Oscar Robertson or the first round draft selection of Kenyon Martin, but he belongs in that sacred inner circle.
Now before I start waxing poetic too much, let’s look at what the Bearcats are going to be without in a purely basketball sense. We’ll start with defense, where Clark was transcendent. He set a career-best defensive rating of 81.6 last season and was one of the rare big men who could not only block shots, but force turnovers as well. His motor never stopped running on defense, allowing him the ability to guard traditional big men and stretch fours alike. He was a great help defender as well and the real engine of UC’s stifling pressure. Figuring out who will be the focal point of the defense is one of the many challenges left in his absence.
His work on the boards will be missed as well. Clark was the team’s best player on the boards last year and it wasn’t particularly close. He averaged 8.7 rebounds per game. Kyle Washington came in a distant second with 5.5. Clark wasn’t just the beneficiary of good positioning on defensive possessions either, he worked hard for offensive rebounds and that leads us to his offensive game.
When he first came to UC, Clark was an undersized power forward who needed work to become an impact player on offense. By the time he graduated he had developed a solid array of post moves, a reliable mid-range jumper and, most recently, a three-point shot. He had a three-point attempt rate of .204 last season and made 43.5 percent of his attempts. He was never a volume shooter from long range, but the fact that he could spread the floor made him an even more effective player than he already was.
Clark wasn’t just great compared to the rest of the Bearcats. He was great compared to the entire nation. He led the way in both offensive and defensive win shares a year ago and was the only player in the country to rank among the top 10 in offensive and defensive rating. Did I mention that replacing him is going to be really, really difficult?
Who needs to step up in his absence?
The key for the players tasked with filling Clark’s shoes is to not try to do too much. Clark was a generational talent, so it is going to take an all hands on deck approach to patch together a semblance of his efforts. Trevon Scott is probably the guy who will technically take his spot in the starting lineup, and his solid production on both sides of the floor emulate Clark, just to a lesser degree. A big step forward from Scott, along with other former Clark understudies such as Eliel Nsoseme and Nysier Brooks, will really help keep things from collapsing.
In a more literal sense, freshman LaQuill Hardnett will replace Clark if only because he will be wearing No. 11 this season.
How difficult will it be to replace him?
This is where preseason optimism is supposed to get me to say that some combination of Scott, Brooks, Nsoseme and even Mamoudou Diarra will make the drop-off from Clark be less severe. However, attempting to completely replace Clark’s efforts both as a player and team leader is a fool’s errand.
What did he do after leaving UC?
Clark wasn’t taken in the NBA Draft like UC teammate Jacob Evans, but he signed with the Rockets after the draft. He’s played in five games for them so far. He’s already shown that his three-point improvement was no fluke, hitting five triples in 38 total minutes, while posting a PER of 12.5.