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Jerry Sullivan: There's no holding back UB's Wes Clark now

How tough is Wes Clark? Let Nate Oats, his high school coach, tell it. Five years ago, Clark injured his knee in the Michigan regional finals. Romulus was three games away from winning a state championship. Clark could barely walk.

"The doctors said it was structurally OK if he could take the pain," Oats, now the UB head coach, said Tuesday night. "Well, it hurt. The last three games, he walked into the gym on crutches, took a shot of Toradol before the game, waited for it to kick in and played the game.

"The Toradol wears off at the end of the game and he walks out on crutches. We win the state championship."

So there's no way Clark is going to miss games now – not after sitting out 22 excruciating months, including the Bulls' first 10 games, while waiting for the NCAA to restore his eligibility for his final college basketball season.

Last week, Clark sprained his left shoulder in a win at Akron. Oats said Clark is at about 50 percent But he has played in the last two games. Before Tuesday night's home game against Northern Illinois, he told Oats they would have to amputate to prevent him from playing.

Clark started, but vanished into the locker room midway through the first half. He reappeared late in the half, holding an ice pack on his left shoulder. But he was back on the floor to start the second half. The 6-foot guard had two assists and a three-pointer as the Bulls, who led by only three after a sluggish first half, quickly found their groove and began to pull away.

His work done, Clark went back to the bench, having played only 21 minutes and scored a season-low six points as the Bulls won, 95-67, moving to 5-0 in league play for the first time in their Mid-American Conference history.

"I've been looking forward to this for 22 months," Clark said. "Every minute really counts to me. But we're trying to play it smart. We don't want it to get any worse. So just trying to take it one minute at a time. It's a small sprain, nothing major, nothing broken."

It's a wonder Clark's spirit wasn't broken during his absence from the college game. He left Missouri in February, 2016, due to academic issues. Because the NCAA was investigating Mizzou on general academic matters, Clark wasn't cleared until that summer. By that time, no Division I school could offer a scholarship.

University at Buffalo guard Wes Clark shoots against Miami during the Bulls' Jan. 13 victory. (Harry Scull Jr./ Buffalo News)

He took off a semester to support his daughter, who is now 3. He also has a 3-month-old son. Last January, he rejoined his old coach, Oats, at UB and spent the second semester working out with the Bulls. The NCAA refused to reinstate him for the fall, so Clark wasn't eligible until the Syracuse game on Dec. 19.

"Luckily my high school coach, who's been there for me for a long time, went the extra mile for me," Clark said. "But the light was dim. The light was very dim. Nate Oats is one of a kind, one in a million."

During the last month, Clark has demonstrated why Oats has called him the most competitive athlete and most hoop-savvy player he's ever been around.

Clark is averaging 15.4 points, 6.0 assists and 1.6 steals. He's fit seamlessly into a deep, talented and selfless team that could be the best in UB's history – even better than the NCAA teams of 2015 and 2016. The ceiling seems higher.

"If we can get healthy, it's higher, for two big reasons," Oats said. "The chemistry is better. My first year as head coach, we struggled early. We had some guys with issues. I feel we have none of that stuff. That's one, the whole attitude-chemistry thing.

"Second, we guard better," he said. "Defense carries. You can go on the road in the conference tournament, you might get cold. Well, defense can carry you."

Both of those speak to Clark's essential nature as a tenacious on-ball defender and a good teammate. It could have been difficult for a deep, young team to accept a transfer from an SEC team, someone who would compete for playing time and accolades. In fact, he made the team's chemistry even better.

"It was very easy," said junior Nick Perkins. "Wes is a guy who's going to do the right thing – hard-nosed, tough, he's going to guard you. He came in and fit right with us."

Oats said unselfish players who want to win welcome a star. He compared it with a talented Golden State Warriors team accepting Kevin Durant. He said Clark won his teammates over last year in practices, where he frequently dominated with the scout team.

"I enjoyed my scout days!" Clark said with a laugh. "That's when you get your shot attempts in. We built a brotherhood over this time period. It wasn't me thinking I had to lead these guys. It was more me getting to know them on and off the court. When we leave here, you can catch five of us walking around.

"It was a brotherhood long before it got to the basketball court. So it was natural once we got on the court to love one another and share the ball."

Clark has some regrets about his time at Missouri. He said he loved it there and had a great time. He was a starter. But he had two suspensions for marijuana and didn't attend to his schoolwork. The college announced that he was dismissed, though Clark later tweeted he hadn't been dismissed. He doesn't care to revisit the specifics.

He had a lot of time to reflect. With only one year of eligibility remaining, why did he bother to come back to college? He could have gone overseas to play professionally, or played in Division II to come back sooner.

Wes Clark, on the bench during UB's game against Jacksonville State on Nov. 15, had to sit out until he was cleared to play by the NCAA. (Harry Scull Jr./ Buffalo News)

"Two reasons," he said. "One, I always felt like I left something on the table in college, like there was more for me, more of a resume I needed to make before I stepped to the pro level. And I really wanted to graduate. Over that time, getting my degree became big to me.

"In that 22 months, I realized that basketball can be taken from you whenever."

Clark, 23, said he's doing well in school and looking to graduate in May with a psychology degree. But he's not going to say it's been easy.

"I'm a slacker, I'm not going to lie," he said. "I feel like I catch on to things pretty fast. So I kind of use it to my advantage and put it off. But I'm doing better."

There's been no slacking for the Bulls this season. They're 13-5 and are ranked 28th in the latest RPIs. Their five MAC wins are by an average of 19 points, and they've scored 80 or more points in six straight games for the first time since 1970-71.

Buffalo doesn't have a bad loss. The Bulls were competitive in losses to Cincinnati, Texas A&M, Syracuse and St. Bonaventure, all rated in the top 42 of the power rankings. They lost at South Dakota State, a perennial power in the Summit.

Clark, the best offensive guard in the MAC in his coach's opinion, didn't play in three of the losses and had just become eligible when the Bulls played at Syracuse and Texas A&M. The ceiling is indeed high: The Bulls are the clear favorite to win the MAC, and there's even talk they could run the table in the regular season.

"I don't think there's too many teams in the country that could play with us when we're playing at our best," Clark said. "We definitely have a great group. The sky's the limit. But there's still a lot to be done, a great lot."

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