Clark Can't

Up and down: The Gophers' Kevin Clark
Christopher Peters

Kevin Clark is one of the most heartwarming, and heartbreaking, underachievers you'd ever want to meet. When Clark makes a noteworthy contribution to his University of Minnesota Gophers basketball team--generally a steal, a three-pointer, or one of his patented, court-length drives for a layup--the senior shooting guard characteristically emits a little hop and twirls his body with contagious zest, his right fist clenched and pumping by his side. Conversely, when Clark is throttled by opponents, his bewilderment emphasizes the boyishness of his features, and his body appears to be much frailer than its listed dimensions of 6-2 and 180 pounds.

Gophers fans have seen the vulnerable, disheartened side of Clark during every road game against a Big Ten conference contender this season. The blunt reality is that Clark has been the club's biggest disappointment, the one vital performer who hasn't lived up to expectations. After transferring to Minnesota from junior college last year, Clark's shooting accuracy and scoring production steadily increased, to the point where he was named tournament MVP and was the obvious spark-plug of the Gophers' season-ending march to the NIT championship. This year Clark and small forward Quincy Lewis were supposed to be a synergistic scoring tandem, and coach Clem Haskins has frequently made it known that his team's offense "will only go as far as Quincy and Kevin take us--we will live and die with those guys." To that end, T-shirts and literature emblazoned with The Lewis & Clark Expedition were dutifully churned out as the theme for the 1998-99 campaign.

Had Clark picked up where he left off last year, it's likely Minnesota would be a shoo-in for an NCAA tournament berth and contending for the best record in the Big Ten. Instead, the Gophers must weather a brutal schedule down the stretch in order to land in the top half of the conference and secure an NCAA bid. And while Lewis has more than fulfilled his end of the bargain--despite confronting defensive alignments bent on containing him, he ranks among the nation's top five in scoring average--Clark has been far less consistent. During the past two years (through last Sunday afternoon's contest against Michigan), Minnesota boasted a 19-2 record when Clark scored at least 15 points, and a 14-19 mark when he fell below that figure.

It would be a mistake to scapegoat Clark, however, without considering the extent to which his health, his coach, and the limits of his own abilities have contributed to his current funk. To begin with, virtually no one has dared to criticize Clark's lack of production during Big Ten conference play this year. They're treading lightly because he has twice experienced a recurrence of the seizures that first plagued him in high school (at a Thanksgiving Day meal at Haskins's home, and after the December 19 Nebraska game).

When it comes to specifics about the nature of the episodes, the Gophers have been stingy. "He has suffered a couple of seizures. How and why they have occurred I can't say," says Roger Schipper, the trainer for the university's men's athletic department. "That diagnosis is a private matter between Kevin and his doctor."

In a recent interview, Clark told City Pages that he's taking 300 milligrams of the anti-seizure drug Lamictal each day after lunch. Dr. Miguel Fiol, a neurologist and the director of the Epilepsy Center at the University of Minnesota, is not familiar with Clark's case but calls Lamictal "a pretty effective anti-convulsant, anti-seizure drug." Fiol says that anyone who suffers recurrent seizures would be classified as a person with epilepsy, but if Clark has experienced just two episodes since Thanksgiving, then the condition is "a very mild case." As for side effects, Fiol says, "There's been a lot of testing, and about 95 percent of the people taking the drug have no side effects. Seven percent may experience dizziness, 7 percent may have difficulty with coordination, 2 percent may feel tired, and 2 percent get rashes."

Clark says he has never felt the impact of the drug during a game and doesn't think it affects his play. "Sometimes I get real tired [after taking the drug]," he acknowledges. "If during practice I feel dizzy, they'll tell me to get some water. Sometimes I get dizzy and I get dehydrated real quick." Adds Schipper, who dispenses the medication: "Every medication has different side effects, and we are evaluating those effects on Kevin. The issue has been discussed enough, and I don't think Kevin wants it talked about anymore."

Haskins has been similarly close-mouthed. The coach did comment a few months back that Clark was probably having to adjust to his medication being steadily ratcheted up from an initial 40 milligrams. But Clark and the Gophers obviously feel his health is under control. If they didn't, he wouldn't be vying with Lewis for the team lead in minutes played, and they wouldn't be reinserting him into the lineup for the relatively meaningless closing moments of easy victories.  

Is something eroding Clark's stamina? It's tempting to believe so: In the first half of each of Minnesota's first nine Big Ten contests, Clark converted on exactly 50 percent of his shots. But in the second half of those games, his accuracy plummeted--to 31 percent. (In those games, Clark's time on the court was comparable from half to half, as was the number of shots he attempted.)

On the other hand, there was no great pattern or variation in the other aspects of his play, i.e., rebounds, assists, or turnovers. And when you take another look at Clark's half-to-half shooting numbers, a different pattern emerges: On the road against top Big Ten opponents, he failed to perform. In losses to Michigan State, Ohio State, and Wisconsin, Clark converted 8 of 17 shots in the first half, but just 1 of 13 in the second half.

These are precisely the games that separate the contenders from the pretenders, the games when you expect your underclassmen to be rattled by the hostile atmosphere and need your senior leaders to step up. For whatever reason, Clark hasn't come through, a failure that is all the more glaring in light of Lewis's heroic efforts. (Clark disappeared again on Sunday, scoring just six points--a 3-point basket in each half--in the Gophers' 10-point loss to host Michigan.)

For this, Clem Haskins must bear some of the blame. It's possible that the coach was beguiled by Clark's offensive emergence last year, or that in sizing up his personnel he saw no other option than to rely, very publicly, on the two-pronged offense of Lewis and Clark. In rationalizing Clark's slump this year, Haskins mentions the team's inexperienced trio of point guards and asserts that no one is getting Clark the ball as effectively as senior Eric Harris did last season. While this is undoubtedly true, Harris was also a better and more frequent shooter than this year's starter, Kevin Nathaniel. In addition, the Gophers had Sam Jacobson, a first-round pick in this year's NBA draft, abetting Lewis, Clark, and Harris on offense. In other words, for most of last season, Clark was at best the team's third scoring option, a status that doesn't warrant special attention from opposing defenses. Furthermore, his breakthrough games in the NIT usually came against clubs who hadn't fully scouted the Gophers' tendencies.

This year, playing nonconference foes who were likewise relatively unfamiliar with Minnesota, Clark again started strong--and Minnesota flourished, with an overtime loss to Final Four contender Cincinnati its only blemish in 10 contests. But when the conference season got under way, Northwestern quickly exposed Minnesota's lack of offensive variety, gearing their defense and their tempo to slow down Lewis and Clark, and upsetting the Gophers at home. After the game, Northwestern coach Kevin O'Neill said, "We spend a lot of time on scouting so that we don't guard guys who can't shoot and we really guard the guys who do shoot." It is a straightforward strategy that has hamstrung the Gophers, and particularly Clark, throughout the conference season.

More than half of Minnesota's starting lineup--Miles Tarver, Joel Przybilla, and Nathaniel--will turn down an open jump shot most of the time. That leaves Lewis and Clark. At 6-7, Lewis is often tall enough to get off his shots while being closely guarded, and he's talented enough to make a high percentage of them. But Clark is just 6-2, and he's most adept in transition off the fast break. He does not have the capability to overcome the attention he receives as the second of only two options in Minnesota's half-court offense, especially against good teams.

The bottom line is that Haskins has oversold Clark's offensive capabilities in the Gophers' system. Always a proponent of veteran experience, Haskins is relying on Clark as a player with a senior's court savvy. Yet the coach must know that two years in junior college is not the same as two years with Clem Haskins. The difference is apparent in the maturity of Tarver and Lewis compared with Clark, whose excitability is endearing but not helpful down the stretch of close games. (His charging foul against Cincinnati is perhaps the most prominent such example.)

As the Gophers head into the crux of their season, Haskins needs to tinker with his offense and develop more scoring threats. One option is to start Ohnstad over Nathaniel at the point, but that further diminishes an already barren bench. Perhaps it's time to sink or swim with Tarver, Przybilla, and Nathaniel shooting when they have an open look. Or maybe the Gophers, who have the best defensive rebounding percentage in the conference, should make the fast break a primary means of trying to generate points. Whatever the case, Kevin Clark needs to get his rhythm back in order to contribute in a major way during road games, whether in the conference or at the NCAA tournament--if the Gophers get there.  

Asked if he has been able to handle all the adversity he has faced this season without pressing, Clark frowns for a moment and looks at the floor. "I'm not really pressing or anything," he replies. "I try not to think about it, because the more I think about it, it bothers me a lot. I just take it and keep working harder. It's all you can do."

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