Clark goes from limbo to leading Buffalo to NCAA Tournament

FILE - In this Saturday, March 10, 2018, file photo, Buffalo's Wes Clark (10) drives past Toledo's Marreon Jackson (3) during the second half of an NCAA college basketball championship game of the Mid-American Conference tournament, in Cleveland. Clark went from his college career being stuck in limbo over a two-year span to helping the University at Buffalo win the Mid-American Conference championship and secure its third NCAA Tournament berth in four years. (AP Photo/Tony Dejak, File)

AMHERST, N.Y. (AP) 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, and 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 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.

He 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 tournament 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 MVP honors.

”He’s like the glue that puts us all together,” Massinburg said. ”He has that ultimate confidence. … We just feed off that and follow his lead.”

It was the type of performance Buffalo coach Nate Oats saw many times while coaching Clark on the Romulus High School team that won the Michigan state championship in 2013. The league Romulus played in was filled with elite point guards, including Kay Felder, Monte Morris and Derrick Walton – all three 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 on 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 his own 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.”

Oats then grew emotional when recalling Clark celebrating the Bulls’ championship victory.

”He’s a kid you want to see good stuff happen to because he deserves it,” Oats said. ”He’s put in so much time, so much work into it trying to get himself together.”

Clark is majoring in psychology and on track to graduate in May. He credits Oats for taking a chance on him and emphasizing the importance of academics.

”He taught me some things to look outside of the box instead of just being a basketball player,” Clark said. ”Because even if I didn’t resurrect my career and get back to playing well, what would happen once I’m done?”

Joking that people shouldn’t confuse him for being ”some scholar or something,” Clark acknowledged he’s learned plenty over the past two years.

”You’ve got to be grateful for opportunities, not only the basketball opportunities,” Clark said. ”It’s seeing things as more of an opportunity like the people I meet, the connections I could have, just school and all. It’s a great thing to have in front of me.”

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