College football is right around the corner, which means one thing: College basketball isn’t far behind. Whenever the attention of the football-mad SEC turns to basketball, one of the conference standouts will be Arkansas guard Rotnei Clarke, one of the best outside shooters in the country and a candidate for All-SEC. Clarke is featured in Dime #58, available on newsstands now:
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Every NBA team needs a shooter. Rotnei Clarke knows this, but even though he is one of the deadliest long-range snipers in college basketball, the Arkansas junior knows he’ll have to rely on more than his outside shot to get a realistic shot at the League.
Clarke averaged 15.1 points while hitting 42 percent from three-point territory last season, and his 100 threes tied for ninth-best in the country. But that was while he played two-guard. And standing just six feet tall, that’s not the profile of an NBA player.
“I used to pattern myself off of J.J. Redick, but right now I’m watching a lot of what Steve Nash does,” says Clarke. “I know if I want to have a shot at the next level, wherever that may be, at my height I definitely have to make myself into more of a pure point guard.”
Lack of height isn’t the only hurdle of perception Clarke faces on a regular basis. His game was honed in tiny Verdigris, Oklahoma (“It’s not even really a town,” Rotnei says), so despite owning the state high school career scoring record and averaging 40.9 points per night as a senior, Clarke wasn’t a big name on the mainstream high school scene.
“I wasn’t too caught up in where I was ranked, whether people thought I was underrated or overrated, but I love being able to prove people wrong,” Clarke says. “I was known as just some short White guy who played at a small school and never played tough competition.”
Clarke started as a freshman at Arkansas, averaging 12.2 points. But as a sophomore he broke out in a big way. In the season opener against Alcorn State, Clarke dropped 51 points, sticking 13-of-17 threes to go with five assists and two steals.
“It’s kind of a weird thing,” Clarke remembers. “I walked in (the locker room) after warm-ups and said, ‘I’m kind of feeling it tonight.’ I was messing around and said I might hit seven or eight threes. It was a different feeling. I had a peace about everything; everything felt real smooth. It kind of felt like everything was out there in slow-motion.”
The next game wasn’t so smooth: Rick Pitino‘s Louisville defense had scouted Clarke and held him to 16 points in a blowout loss. Clarke recovered to drop 26 points on Morgan State two games later, then gave East Tennessee State 32 points and 10 threes. Clarke also had a 24-point effort against Texas, and hit five threes on his way to 17 points against Florida, but struggled in the latter part of the season due to nagging injuries and fatigue.
Clarke has always been a shooter — “I think God blessed me with a talent to shoot the basketball,” he says — but his goal is to evolve and not be pigeon-holed as a pure gunner. He says he’s spending this offseason working on creating his own shot and getting to the basket more often, where he can take advantage of his career 86-percent free throw clip. And he wants to prove he can play point guard.
“He can pass the ball,” says Damon Jones, Arkansas’ Director of Basketball Operations. “When we first saw tapes of him in high school, obviously we were really impressed with his shooting, but we could see he’s a complete basketball player. He’s unselfish. It sounds weird to say that because he was scoring 40 and 50 points a game, but he was passing.”
Clarke also wants to win. Last season the Razorbacks finished 14-18 overall, 7-9 in the SEC. Far cry from the program’s glory days when Nolan Richardson, Scotty Thurman and Corliss Williamson led “40 Minutes of Hell,” winning a national championship in 1994. Fourth-year coach John Pelphrey is trying to rebuild Arkansas to its past glory.
“We know there’s a lot of history here,” Clarke says. “There have been some unbelievable players to come out of here. They’ve won a national championship here. It’s a legacy that we want to be able to go back to. We want to put Arkansas back on the map.”