- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 29, 2008

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Earl Clark concedes his high school practices weren’t all too challenging, his coaches at that level not demanding and the game plan fairly basic.

Just give him the ball and let him do what he wanted.

Really, when a legitimate high school All-American is involved, there are far worse strategies for a coach to employ. Go down with your best player, especially when he is vastly more athletic than nearly everyone else he encountered.

But it didn’t remotely prepare Clark for life under coach Rick Pitino at Louisville, where the lessons were imparted with far more vigor than at the high school level.

“It was real tough because you want to get out there and run and do what you’ve been doing and put up shots and do crazy things,” Clark said yesterday at Charlotte Bobcats Arena. “Coach P was not having that. I had to adjust, and it’s made me a better player.”

It also has made the third-seeded Cardinals (27-8) especially dangerous in this month’s East regional. Louisville, which meets top-seeded North Carolina (35-2) with its second Final Four trip in four years on the line, has pummeled its first three NCAA tournament opponents by an average of 22.3 points.

Clark has led the Cardinals in scoring in each game, including an authoritative 17-point, 12-rebound, four-block outing against Tennessee in Thursday’s 79-60 regional semifinal rout.

It’s the Clark teammates saw glimmers of over the last two seasons, a transcendent talent who could materialize some nights and seemingly not bother to show on others.

The word “effort” and its close relatives “desire” and “want” are badly overused throughout athletics. It’s rare to find someone thoroughly uninterested in putting forth at least an attempt to improve.

But in Clark’s case, they might be the linchpins for the lanky 6-foot-9 sophomore to unlock his obvious physical gifts.

“When he first came to us, Earl did not have the ability to work very hard,” Pitino said. “He thought he was like what most high school kids think they are. And just in the last six weeks — he’s always had great skills, [but] now he’s acquired a work ethic.”

It’s intriguing it took so long. Teammate Derrick Caracter could see Clark’s potential when the two faced each other growing up in New Jersey.

But in Clark’s final high school, he was passed over for state player of the year honors.

“He’s always been a little hungrier to prove to people he can just play with anybody,” Caracter said. “In Jersey his senior year, Brian Zoubek got the player of the year over him, and he felt he was cheated on that. Ever since he came to college, he’s played with a little chip on his shoulder.”

That wasn’t always apparent. He emerged as a starter late last year but endured a lull midseason. His minutes slashed and effectiveness down, Clark came to a conclusion.

It was time to accept instruction, even if he wasn’t accustomed to it.

“Just going into the season, I realized I had to turn it up and take my game to the next level,” Clark said. “Coach told me I was cruising a little bit so I had to play harder. In practice, I had to dig in and play as hard as I can.”

Clark has not struggled to summon his best in recent weeks. He started throughout the Cardinals’ perfect February and is averaging 15.3 points and 8.0 rebounds off the bench in the NCAA tournament.

In Thursday’s victory, he was a defensive menace. Twice, he rejected Tennessee sharpshooter Chris Lofton’s 3-point attempts, a not-so-subtle message to the Volunteers.

It was the sort of play that eventually will make pro scouts salivate. But Pitino said yesterday Clark should not leave after this season, preferring to see Clark stay and improve rather than languishing at the back end of an NBA bench.

If Clark heeds Pitino’s wishes, the Cardinals could be a frightening team next season. He already has accepted his coach’s pointers on an important matter this year, and it has helped Louisville reach a regional final.

“I’ve seen the results,” Clark said. “In February we were undefeated. Winning games, nothing feels better than that. You have no choice but to listen to him when the results are there.”

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