Larger programs and Southeastern Conference schools showed interest, just not scholarships.
Ian Clark watched as his high school and Amatuer Athletic Union teammates were flooded with big-time offers. Leslie McDonald went to North Carolina. Austin Hollins headed to Minnesota. Ferrakohn Hall chose Seton Hall. A slew of others stayed in town and suited up for Memphis.
Clark’s offers consisted of the mid-major variety: Belmont, Davidson, Lipscomb, Middle Tennessee State and Murray State.
“For me, it was kind of a chip because a lot of my friends went high-major,” Clark said. “Growing up with them, playing with them all my life, I felt like I could play on that level.”
Clark certainly had big-time numbers. He led Germantown High in scoring his last three seasons and averaged 23 points and five assists as a senior. When Belmont coach Rick Byrd first saw him play his junior season, he drooled over his 3-point shooting and seal-tight defense.
Byrd also noticed those skinny arms and scrawny frame. A 6-foot-3 toothpick who weighed just 159 pounds his freshman year of college, Clark’s stature might have scared off big-time programs concerned about how he would hold up with the physical demands of a grueling conference schedule.
“It may have been the very thing that would have kept SEC schools from recruiting him hard or being sure about him,” Byrd said. “It probably bothered me less than even some people at our level. He was a no-brainer. He was a surefire good player for us. So that stuff didn’t bother me. I felt like at the time he was as good a player as we ever have been able to recruit.”
Four years later, Clark is proving Byrd right and so many others wrong.
In the midst of one of the best seasons in Belmont basketball history, Clark heads into Thursday’s highly anticipated matchup with defending Ohio Valley Conference Player of the Year Isaiah Canaan and Murray State as one of the premier guards in the country.
He leads all Division I players in 3-point shooting (51.1 percent), ranks seventh in 3-pointers made (72), 18th with 57.6 field goal percentage — second among guards — and 24th in scoring (19.2 points per game).
“I think he starts for any team in the state of Tennessee,” ESPN analyst Jimmy Dykes said. “He does it all. He is a terrific player, a terrific defender on one of maybe Belmont’s best defensive teams. He is the real deal.”
Dykes serves as ESPN’s color analyst for SEC games so he has seen Vanderbilt and Tennessee play. In addition, he has scouted Memphis and MTSU.
So is Ian Clark the best player in the state of Tennessee?
“I can’t think of one better. No. He would be it,” Dykes said. “He is a Division I basketball player that’s played a very good schedule and those are the numbers he’s posted. I don’t think anybody has to apologize for that.”
In fact Dykes believes the only player who comes close is Tennessee guard Jordan McRae (14.3 ppg).
“I’ve watched them both play and I think Ian is a nudge in front of him in terms of being a better shooter from 3,” he said. “He is more consistent in his play on the offensive end. Defensively, he gets an edge there as well. So I don’t know if it says more about the rest of the talent in the state as much as Ian Clark is having a terrific year and deserving of anything he gets from this point forward.”
Clark entered his senior season with an already impressive résumé.
He has started every game of his career. In 2009-10, he scored 31 points twice, became the first freshman to lead Belmont in scoring in the NCAA era and was tabbed the Atlantic Sun’s Freshman of the Year. Last season, he was named the league’s top defender and earned preseason All-OVC honors.
But Clark wasn’t satisfied. He bulked up to 180, though he still struggles to keep the pounds on.
“People still call me fat — I eat a lot,” he said with a grin. “It just doesn’t stick to me.”
He also put in the extra time in the summer to hone his ball-handling and improve off the dribble.
“I know a lot of guys were going to run me off the line this year,” Clark said. “So I wanted to work on my one-dribble pull-up, two-dribble pull-up, just making myself hard to guard.”
With the exception of No. 2 Kansas, which held Clark to a season-low five points, he has provided matchup problems for everyone.
In November, he set the Great Alaska Shootout record with nine 3-pointers against Northeastern. While he is regularly a threat from 3-point range by coming off screens, pulling up in transition or stepping back, he ransacked Virginia Commonwealth by going inside. He was a perfect 10-for-10 against the Rams, with just three 3-pointers. In January, he made 12 baskets in two straight games. That included a career-high 32-point performance against Tennessee-Martin in which he made his first nine shots and had 24 points by halftime.
In Belmont’s first year in the OVC — where the Bruins were 9-0 heading into Saturday — Clark is slicing through the competition. In league games, he averages 21.7 points, shoots 64.2 percent (70 of 109) from the field and 56.8 percent (29 of 51) from 3-point range.
“He is very efficient,” Belmont guard J.J. Mann said. “He doesn’t just dribble the ball to dribble the ball: He dribbles the ball. He jabs. He goes somewhere. He makes moves. He lets the game come to him very well and he takes good shot selection. That’s huge. That is why his field-goal percentage is so high.”
He is also proving he doesn’t need to score to be effective.
With Eastern Kentucky point guard Mike DiNunno torching the Bruins for 24 points, Byrd shifted Clark to guard him. In the next game, against Tennessee State, Byrd again asked Clark to make a position switch. With point guard Kerron Johnson in foul trouble and TSU threatening, Clark took over the offense and tied a career-high with six assists in addition to 22 points in the win.
That was much to the chagrin of Travis Williams. TSU’s first-year coach got to know Clark more over the summer as the Tigers opened their doors to area players who wanted to practice and engage in pickup games. Williams hoped Clark would remember that Southern hospitality and asked him to take it easy on his team.
“He said, ‘Coach, this is about business,’” Williams said. “You can tell he is hungry and he is working hard.”
And no longer a second thought.
He is on track to become Belmont’s all-time leading scorer in the NCAA era, which began in 1996. Entering this week, he had 1,723 career points and counting — not far behind Wes Burtner, who scored 1,833 from 1998-2002.
After he graduates this spring, Clark hopes to draw interest from NBA scouts. He plans to work with former teammate Drew Hanlen, who trains NBA players such as David Lee, John Wall and John Jenkins. While he might not get drafted, Dykes believes Clark’s 3-point shooting and defense will land him in training camp.
Besides, that’s what grabbed Byrd’s attention — not the unintimidating physical presence that kept so many away.
“I’ve surprised myself, definitely,” Clark said. “I try to not think about it too much because I don’t want to jinx it. I am blessed to have what I have in front of me. I’ve always played my game. I feel like it is blossoming now. As I came in, I see things that I needed to work on that maybe could have hindered me. But I’m glad I’m in my position right now and I’m glad I’m here.”