BOISE, Idaho — Wes Clark had just starred in one of the most stunning beatdowns by an underdog in NCAA Tournament history — 13th-seeded Buffalo’s 21-point shellacking of fourth-seeded Arizona — but his eyes were already on the next line of the bracket late Thursday night.
“Oh, man, I got a lot of history with them Kentucky guys,” he said. “I’m trying to redeem myself a little bit, get back to what I know, and just embrace the same opportunity we had tonight. I done played [Kentucky] a lot and they done dominated me. I ain’t feeling too good about that, so I got a little chip on my shoulder. I gotta go at them boys.”
Buffalo (27-8) will play No. 5 seed Kentucky (25-10) in the second round Saturday night, and Clark hopes it will go a bit better than his previous meetings with the Wildcats. Formerly a point guard at Missouri, he went 0-4 against UK, including three losses by at least 16 points.
In his final two games against the kings of the SEC, Clark made just 7 of 30 shots, had 1 assist and lost by a combined 83 points. He did go for 19 points, 4 rebounds and 4 assists in a 16-point loss to No. 1 Kentucky in 2015 — the year the Cats reached the Final Four undefeated.
“That’s one of the games I’m most proud of,” said Clark, who was dismissed from Missouri in February 2016 for failing to meet academic expectations. “It’s always good to play good against Calipari and that Kentucky team, but like I said, I got a chip on my shoulder for them. They done beat me every time I’ve played them. We’re trying to redeem that.”
Clark is coming in hot this time. The former top-100 recruit scored 26 points in the MAC Championship Game last week, then torched Arizona for 25 points, 7 assists, 4 rebounds, 2 blocks and a steal Thursday. The lasting image from that 89-68 upset: 6-foot-tall Clark snatching away a rebound from both of Arizona’s 7-footers, including likely No. 1 NBA draft pick Deandre Ayton.
“It was a scrappy moment. This team is built on grit and playing hard and just fighting,” said Clark, who sat just a few feet away from a makeshift sign taped up in Buffalo’s locker room: Ball Pressure. “We try to disrupt people. [Arizona] got a lot of guys that can score at a high rate, guys that’s NBA prospects. With that, we thought the best way to have a chance was to interrupt what they got going on, disrupt everything.
“It gave us some more confidence. Like, we knew we were good, but we didn’t know until we played one of those type of teams how good we were.”
Not many people knew. Arizona had become a popular pick to blow past not only Buffalo but also Kentucky and then No. 1 overall seed Virginia and reach the Final Four. Clark and his teammates saw ESPN already breaking down a UK-Arizona matchup earlier in the week — and after the Cats beat Davidson in the early game Thursday, questions to Kentucky players centered on how they’d stop Ayton.
“We was just like, ‘Is we not basketball players? Are we not on the floor?’ So we had that chip on our shoulder and we’re going to keep that chip on Saturday,” Clark said. “We feel like this is where we belong, man. We feel like it ain’t no upset. This is where we’re supposed to be playing.
“We got guys that should be playing at high-majors, should be on that same level. We’re just trying to show that we ain’t nothing below that.”
He dismissed the idea that, after expecting to face Arizona, Kentucky might be sleeping on Buffalo.
“I think they’re pretty woke now,” Clark said.