Amherst, N.Y. — The sheer poetry of the moment wasn’t lost on Wes Clark in knowing what final obstacle stood in the way of Buffalo’s senior point guard resuming his college basketball career after spending 22 months in limbo.
It came down to him passing a final exam in statistics, of all things. Statistics were something Clark was accustomed to producing on the court with a soft outside touch or an assist, yet struggled with on paper.
“Stats was tough on me,” Clark said, chuckling. “It was one of the hardest subjects I took.”
He can laugh now, but Clark was filled with anxiety the morning of Dec. 19, waiting for his exam to be graded before he could be cleared to suit up for the Bulls’ game at Syracuse that evening. Clark passed, and off he sped in making the two-hour drive to the Carrier Dome in time to score 15 points and add six assists in an 81-74 loss to the Orange.
The Romulus native hasn’t looked back since, putting behind the frustrations of how his playing career was halted abruptly during his junior year at Missouri because of academic reasons in February 2016.
Instead, Clark looks ahead to Thursday, when the Mid-American Conference champion Bulls (26-8) open the NCAA Tournament against Arizona (27-7), the South Regional’s fourth seed, in Boise, Idaho.
“Oh, man, it’s going to be special. Hopefully, I can get past the jitters,” Clark said. “I’ve never played in nothing as big as the NCAA Tournament. I’m just grateful to be out there.”
In 24 games, Clark has made up for lost time in helping the Bulls set a school record for wins and secure their third NCAA berth in four years.
He’s fourth on the team in scoring at 14.6 points per game, and second in assists (5.3). And he saved his most impressive performance for last in the MAC championship game against Toledo on Saturday.
With leading scorer CJ Massinburg struggling on a night when he would finish 1-of-7 from the field for four points, Clark went 10-of-15 for 26 points, and added three assists, four steals and five rebounds in a 76-66 victory to earn tournament Most Valuable Player honors.
It was the type of performance Buffalo coach Nate Oats saw many times while coaching Clark on the Romulus High School team that won a state championship in 2013. The league Romulus played in was filled with elite point guards, including Kay Felder, Monte Morris and Derrick Walton Jr. — Felder and Morris eventual NBA Draft selections.
“I wouldn’t trade him for any of those three. I thought I had the best one of the four. Still do,” Oats said. “He went to the wrong spot or, I’ll say, it didn’t work out. But I still think he’s got it in him.”
Oats left Romulus to land a job on Bobby Hurley’s first staff in Buffalo. Clark was a highly pursued recruit who chose Missouri. Clark, who twice tested positive for marijuana at Missouri, was the Tigers’ second-leading scorer in each of his final two seasons before being dismissed from the team shortly before a game against South Carolina Feb. 16, 2016.
He then became stuck in a maze of NCAA bureaucracy that prevented Clark from transferring until August, which was too late to land a scholarship at another school. Unable to afford tuition, Clark went to work that fall so he could enroll at Buffalo for the spring semester last year.
NCAA transfer rules still required him to sit out an entire two semesters before Clark was eligible to play in December.
“He sacrificed a lot personally to do this thing,” Oats said. “But I’ve always known he’s a winner.”
Memphis, Tubby part ways
Tubby Smith has been fired by Memphis after two seasons amid dropping attendance and donations to the athletic department.
Memphis issued a statement saying only that an agreement of “separation” had been reached in the “best financial interest” of the university with details still to be finalized.
Smith went 40-26 at Memphis, including 21-13 this season.
The Tigers won seven of their final nine games before losing Saturday, 70-60, to No. 8 Cincinnati in the American Athletic Conference semifinal game.
No. 16 Texas Southern 64, No. 16 North Carolina Central 46: At Dayton, Texas Southern got its first NCAA Tournament win in a First Four game.
Damontrae Jefferson, a 5-foot-7 guard, scored 25 points and grabbed eight rebounds to lift No. 16 seed Texas Southern (16-19), which became the first team with a losing record to win a Tournament game.
The Tigers started the season 0-13 against a really rough schedule and didn’t win a game until Jan. 1. Now they move on face No. 1 seed Xavier on Friday.
N.C. Central (19-16) was led by Raasean Davis with 19 points.
Syracuse 60, Arizona State 56: At Dayton, freshman Oshae Brissett had a double-double and led Syracuse’s second-half comeback, and the Orange – the last team to make the NCAA Tournament – held on in the First Four.
The 11th-seeded Orange plays No. 6 seed TCU (21-11) on Friday in Detroit in the Midwest Region.
Syracuse (21-13) had to sweat out Selection Sunday and wound up as the last one to make the bracket, sent to the First Four. The Orange prevailed in a matchup of teams that started fast and then faded onto the tournament bubble.
Arizona State (20-12) opened the season with 12 wins, including victories over tournament No. 1 seeds Xavier and Kansas. The Sun Devils went 8-12 the rest of the way. They also faded at the end of their tournament game.
Brissett overcame a hard fall in the first half, scored 23 points and had 12 rebounds. He had a three-point play and a step-back jumper as the Orange overcame a seven-point deficit with 7 minutes left.
(At) Eastern Michigan 83, Niagara 65: Elijah Minnie scored 29 and James Thompson IV added 20 and 16 rebounds as the Eagles (22-12) coasted to a home win in the CollegeInsider.com tournament. Tim Bond added 11 points and 12 rebounds. Khalil Dukes scored 16 to lead the way for Niagara (19-14).
Former Ohio State coach Thad Matta has pulled out of consideration for the open Georgia job, while former Indiana coach Tom Crean met with Pittsburgh about its opening, ESPN reported.