If Missouri is going to move up in the SEC after last season’s last-place finish, junior guard Wes Clark is probably going to have to lead the charge.
Clark is not only the most experienced player in the Tigers’ backcourt, but he’s the team’s best chance for a consistent scoring presence both as a shot-maker and facilitator.
“To have a really good basketball team, one thing you have to have is a guy who can handle the basketball and can make some plays — maybe not just for himself but for others,” Mizzou coach Kim Anderson said.
Missouri wants it to be — really, needs it to be — Clark, a graduate of Romulus High in Detroit.
“I talk to Wes all the time and I tell him that he has to be our go-to guy,” junior forward Russell Woods said.
He was on his way to becoming that last season.
Clark scored in double figures in seven of the Tigers’ first 11 conference games last season and was beginning to settle into a groove for the first time in his college career.
Then came Feb. 10 at South Carolina and a freak collision while diving for a loose ball left Clark with a dislocated elbow that cost him the final eight games of the season.
The physical setback also created a mental hurdle for Clark, who was content with a backseat role during most of the nonconference schedule.
“At first, I was a little tentative about it,” Clark said. “With an injury like that, you may lose some of that aggression. But as time went on, I got the same aggression back and got to playing with the same feel.”
Clark averaged 10 points through this season’s first three games, but went seven straight after that without scoring more than eight.
His shots weren’t falling as Clark went 15 for 53 overall (28.3 percent) and 4 of 17 from three-point range (23.5 percent).
Some of it might be traced back to the elbow injury, which saddled Clark with a hitch in his shooting stroke that needed to be ironed out.
Clark seems to have ironed it out, going 25 of 48 overall (percent) and 10 of 20 from long range (50 percent) during his recent four-game scoring surge.
“Just having the confidence and putting the reps in is starting to pay off, so I’m happy with that,” he said.
Clark has averaged 16.8 points, scoring in double figures in four consecutive games now — including a career-high 21 on Dec. 23 against Illinois, a mark he eclipsed 10 days later by scoring 22 against Savannah State in only 23 minutes.
“This is the Wes we all know and love,” prescient sophomore guard Namon Wright said after the Illinois game. “He’s going to continue to bring it every game and boost us and help everybody else play to their full potential as well.”
Certainly, it’s had an impact in the locker room.
“He’s a little more loose, freshman Terrence Phillips said. “I can honestly say that. The first few games, he was a little uptight. I don’t what that was with him, but the past few games he’s been a little more loose. He’s laughing and joking in the locker room a lot more. … I’m loving him right now. I’ve always loved him, but I love the way he’s playing right now.”
Now, Missouri, which is 7-7 overall and 0-1 in conference entering an 8 p.m. tipoff Saturday against Auburn at Mizzou Arena, needs to fall in line behind Clark.
“I think he needs help,” Anderson said after Clark scored 13 on Wednesday at Georgia. “I think it got to a deal where he wasn’t getting as much help as he needed, but he competed. We’ve got to get him some help. You can’t just throw him out there and say, ‘Hey, go win the game.’ Our execution has to be better and we’ve got to have some other guys step up. And they will.”