He wears No. 23. He averaged a team-high 18.9 points last season. All of the 11 Northeast Conference coaches picked him for the preseason all-conference team. And yet none of those numbers tell the real story of Long Island University’s superlative forward Raiquan Clark.
The number that tells the real story? Zero.
That’s the number of Division I scholarship offers Clark received after four years of high school and one at prep school. Yet as the Sharks embark on this season Tuesday at URI, the redshirt senior has a good shot at eclipsing Jamal Olasewere’s school record of 1,871 career points and possibly hitting the 2,000-point mark. He enters the season with 1,404 points.
“I’ve been watching him for four seasons now and it’s still hard to believe he had no offers,” senior guard Julian Batts said. “I maybe didn’t see him at first scoring the way he has, but he is driven.”
Going back to high school, the 6-6 Clark had an unshakable belief that he belonged playing Division I basketball. But the New Haven, Connecticut native got no validation in the form of an offer. Out of options, he began an email campaign.
“I sent emails, to multiple people at every Division I school — head coaches, assistant coaches, [operations] directors,” Clark said. “I could have gone Division II, but I didn’t want to settle for Division II. I believed I was better than that.”
Through a string of connections, he was introduced to an assistant coach on former LIU-Brooklyn head coach Jack Perri’s staff and was invited for a campus visit where he played in front of the coaching staff. They told him that he could be a ‘preferred walk-on.’ He didn’t understand the concept of walking on and was more-or-less stunned to learn that he’d have to pay for college that year. His mother, registered nurse Shontay Watts, agreed to pay what financial aid could not. It's the reason to this day that when he takes extra shooting early in the morning "all I am thinking about is her."
Clark got inserted into a game early that season. Instead of reveling in making his Division I college debut, he was upset about it. Afterward, he explained to Perri that he wanted to redshirt that season. He believed he would convince them he deserved a scholarship. And convince them he did. He landed a scholarship for the following season and his rags-to-riches story suddenly had momentum.
“Maybe he first thought of me as a practice player, but I told him that's not what I had in mind,” Clark explained. “I [told him] ‘I want to win a championship. I want to go to the tournament. I want to [us] to be nationally recognized. . . . I wanted four years of playing.”
Before his second scholarship season, LIU hired Derek Kellogg as the new head coach. It was a gravitas move for the school, to bring in someone who played for John Calipari’s teams at UMass and then, as an assistant, helped him turn Memphis into a Final four program. Kellogg, who’d coached UMass the season before, was delighted at seeing Clark’s abilities from the outset.
“My first look at him I thought he could have been an [Atlantic 10] player for me at UMass,” Kellogg said. “He didn’t just go from a walk-on to making himself a Division I player. He has made himself into a top scorer and a [conference] Player of the Year candidate.
“He has a toughness — kind of an inner chip on his shoulder to prove people wrong. And some of it maybe comes from how he was recruited and maybe left behind,” Kellogg added. “He's out there to prove now that he belongs with those guys that were so-called ‘ranked ahead of him’ coming out of high school.”
“I didn’t think I would be a leading scorer, but I always knew I was going to play Division I,” Clark said. “Now we know it. It’s about winning championships now.”
LIU, which followed up on reaching the 2018 NCAA Tournament by stumbling in the conference semifinal last season to finish 16-16, is picked to win the title in the preseason coaches poll, though three other teams received first-place votes. The Sharks return the starting backcourt of Batts and senior Jashuan Agosto as well as Clark and 6-9 Ty Flowers — who followed Kellogg from UMass — in the front court. Eral Penn, a 6-7 starter from last season, could miss this one after arm surgery to treat an infection. But Akron transfer Virshon Cotton could give the Sharks an intimidating three-guard look.
“I am not going to say right now that this is the best team I’ve been on,” Batts said, pointing to the 2017-18 team that won the Northeast Conference and made the NCAA Tournament. “But it’s all here. This could be the best.”
DID YOU KINOW?
**After last year’s merger of the athletic departments of the Brooklyn and Brookville campuses, sophomore Devin Nicholson from the Division II LIU Post program has made the team as a walk-on and is expected to be a fan favorite.
**Senior guard Jashuan Agosto found national acclaim a decade ago when his father’s videos of his ball handling work went viral. It resulted in his appearances on the Ellen Degeneres talk show and "Good Morning America." He works out in the offseason with several NBA players.
**LIU has appeared in four of the past nine NCAA Tournaments. Over the past decade, it has reached the Big Dance more times than any other program in Long Island’s four counties.
-- ROGER RUBIN