In Wednesday’s thrilling 63-62 win over Rhode Island, nine players spent time on the floor for VCU.
Conspicuously absent from that group was sophomore guard Tre Clark, who had come off the bench in every game to that point. Clark made the trip to Rhode Island and was seen in a shootaround video posted on the VCU basketball team’s Instagram story. But Clark, who averaged 16.1 minutes per game, did not enter the game.
When asked after the game, head coach Mike Rhoades only said that Clark did not appear because of a “university suspension.”
From there, things moved rather quickly. On Thursday afternoon, VCU announced that Tre Clark had left the team.
“Tre Clark is no longer a member of the men’s basketball program at VCU,” a statement from VCU Athletics said. “We are not allowed to comment further on this matter.”
On Friday, 247Sports broke the news that Clark entered the transfer portal.
VCU sophomore Jimmy Clark III has entered the transfer portal, source tells @247Sports.
Averaged 5.9 points, 1.4 rebounds, 1.8 assists and 1.8 steals this season for the Rams.
— Travis Branham (@TravisBranham_) February 5, 2021
Obviously, the speed and secrecy surrounding Clark’s departure leaves a lot of unanswered questions. For the VCU Rams, who are firmly on the March Madness bubble, the most pressing issue becomes filling the void Clark’s absence leaves.
Through 16 games this season, Clark had shown significant improvement in every statistical category. Clark took on an expanded workload this season, playing nine more minutes per game than he did in his freshman season.
By far, Clark’s best attribute is on the defensive end. Clark’s 1.8 steals per game ranks third amongst VCU and sixth in the Atlantic 10 conference. On most other teams, Clark likely would have been the best defensive player, but VCU starting guards Ace Baldwin and Bones Hyland rank in the top three in steals per game in the conference.
Despite shooting 24% from deep, Clark’s field goal percentage sits at exactly 50%, due to his above-average ability to drive and make buckets in the paint. For a guard, Clark is not afraid to drive and generate contact. While his 5.9 points per game does not leap off of the stat sheet, it represents a near four point per game increase over last season.
Clark’s points per game stats have risen by one or more in points, assists, steals and field goals made. While not to the caliber of a Hyland, Clark was serviceable at VCU as a guard that could maintain defensive pressure with decent offensive production. The guard trio of Hyland, Baldwin and Clark presented arguably the toughest defensive trio in the conference.
VCU has seen its noteworthy depth evaporate throughout the season. Sophomore guard Jarren McAllister tore his ACL in practice earlier this season. McAllister did not appear in a game for VCU this season. Junior guard KeShawn Curry has missed five games this season due to multiple injuries. Curry did not appear in Wednesday’s win due to a left ankle injury incurred Jan. 30 against La Salle.
With McAllister unavailable and Clark gone, coupled with Curry’s health issues, VCU finds itself reliant on freshmen guards to fill the void. Jamir Watkins has excelled as a freshman, averaging the most points of the freshmen on VCU’s roster (6.3). Watkins has handled a significant workload off the bench already, totaling the sixth-most minutes of any VCU player this season (he was seventh, but passed Clark on Wednesday). For VCU’s success, Watkins must embrace the true sixth man role, namely in games where Curry is out.
The player most directly impacted by Clark’s transfer is North Carolinian Josh Banks. Banks entered VCU with a lot of hype based on the eye-popping stats he put up in high school. Banks has yet to replicate that on the collegiate level, mostly due to a lack of playing time. Through 13 games, Banks has averaged 2.5 points per game in 8.3 minutes per game. On Wednesday, Banks scored two points in seven minutes.
To compensate for Clark’s absence, Rhoades deployed a tight rotation Wednesday night. Hyland played 38 minutes during the game, while Baldwin played 32. Running your star guard on the floor for almost a complete game is not sustainable, even for a player like Hyland that has gathered NBA draft buzz.
It is not ideal, but it is time to increase Banks’ minutes and role in the rotation. Banks may not be fully ready for an increased workload, but in this case Rhoades has no better options. A trial by fire for Banks is the best option VCU has down the stretch.
There seems to be no realistic way to make up for the loss of Clark’s defensive acumen. VCU has an exceptional defense with or without Clark, but losing an impact defensive guard in the second unit hurts VCU’s overall depth. Only time will tell if a bench player can step up and generate the defensive havoc that Clark created.
VCU fans will have to wait a while longer to see how Rhoades adapts for Clark’s dismissal. Sunday’s scheduled game against Duquesne was postponed due to COVID-19 issues with the Dukes’ program. As of 3:30 Saturday afternoon, VCU has not scheduled a replacement game for Sunday. The Rams’ next scheduled game is a home game Feb. 10 against Davidson.