MSU’s Clark perseveres after being ‘given up on’
East Lansing — When Marvin Clark Jr. says he’s endured one of the toughest years of his life, that’s saying something.
But with Michigan State entering the Big Ten tournament as a favorite to win, as well a national title contender, Clark is finding himself in a familiar position.
A key part of last season’s run to the Final Four, Clark has overcome a broken foot, a lack of focus and dwindling playing time to once again become a vital part of Michigan State’s success.
“We kind of had all given up on Marv,” Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said. “Marv was hardly playing. Kenny (Goins) gets hurt and Marv gets a chance. I thought Marv played as well as anybody (in the regular-season finale). That was encouraging.”
That’s probably not the first time people have done that with the Kansas City native.
For a kid who spent much of his childhood moving from house to homeless shelter and bouncing from school to school as he and his siblings watched their mother struggle through abusive relationships, life has been an uphill battle.
But it’s never kept the 6-foot-6, 230-pound sophomore down, and some trying times on the court haven’t, neither.
There’s no doubting, however, things weren’t looking good for Clark a few weeks ago. He had become an afterthought in the rotation as Goins had taken most of the minutes backing up freshman Deyonta Davis.
Fighting to work his way back from a broken foot discovered after the team returned from its summer trip to Italy, Clark was out of sorts early.
Izzo said he expected Clark to be his starting power forward when the season began, but the injury changed that. Clark didn’t play the first two games, and when he made his debut against Arkansas-Pine Bluff, he wasn’t the same player that saw action in all 39 games as a freshman.
“That was a major hit on me mentally and physically,” Clark said of the injury. “But more mental than anything because I was like, ‘What the heck?’ I put in a lot of work last summer — a lot of work — because I was going into it thinking I would be a starter, so I had to add something to my game.
“It just didn’t work out but maybe that was a test. I’ve been put through a lot of things early in my life to help me weather the storm and I feel like, at the end of the day, that helped me get over hump.”
Big Ten play didn’t offer much change for Clark, who didn’t play at all in three games as was leaning heavily on teammates — namely Javon Bess and former high school teammate Lourwals Nairn Jr. — to help him through the frustration.
“They helped push me,” Clark said. “Tum and J.B., those are my guys, my best friends. And (Denzel Valentine), he told me the cream always rises to the top. … The tips he gave me helped and I’m thankful to have guys like that in my corner.”
It took more than just some words of wisdom, however.
It was during one moment at Purdue when Clark realized he needed to do more. He entered the game, made a mistake, and was promptly pulled. He didn’t return.
“We lose that game and I’m thinking to myself, ‘If I was on the floor maybe Zel has an easier driving lane or maybe Eron (Harris) would have an easier driving lane. Maybe I can create some space,’ ” Clark said. “I started looking at the game ... I gotta put more time in the film room.”
So that’s what he did. And the night before Michigan State hosted Indiana, as assistant Mike Garland was checking on players to make sure they were in bed, Clark was watching film.
The next afternoon, Goins went down with a knee injury and Garland urged Izzo to go with Clark. He responded, playing 22 minutes and grabbing four rebounds. Two games later, the shot returned as he hit a pair of 3-pointers at Ohio State and the confidence started to grow.
By the time the regular season ended, Clark logged 21 minutes, shot 4-for-4 and grabbed five rebounds in the finale against Ohio State.
“He’s been huge,” Valentine said. “He’s an outside threat, a pick and pop. ... He just has a knack for (offensive rebounds) and it can give us a couple extra possessions. Defensively, he can guard 1 through 5 and get big-time stops.
“He’s more confident now, more positive, and we’re gonna need him.”
Clark said he’s ready to be the player Michigan State needs. He’s confident again and focusing on doing whatever it takes to win — rebounding, defending, getting after loose balls — just like he did last year at this time.
“I feel like I’m just now, the past four or five games, feeling like myself,” he said. “I’m making hustle plays, I’m even jumping like I can, being athletic. I’m just now getting that and what better time than now?”