The college experience could have gone so differently for Shane Clark.

Had it not been for a clerical error, Clark would have spent the last four years exhibiting his versatile basketball skills and easygoing manner at Maryland. He'd be grabbing rebounds, draining the occasional basket, and guarding the likes of Tyler Hansbrough.

Instead, the pleasure of Clark's talent and personality over that time has belonged to Villanova, the school he initially spurned but where he was accepted by his teammates and coach Jay Wright after fate intervened.

The 6-foot-7 Clark, a former Cardinal Dougherty High star, concludes the regular-season phase of his career for the 11th-ranked Wildcats tonight at the Pavilion against Providence. He may not have the numbers - 5.5 points, 3.7 rebounds - of fellow senior starters Dante Cunningham and Dwayne Anderson, but that has not made him any less valuable in Wright's mind.

"He's so versatile," the coach said. "He's just a basketball player, and he's a winner. He'll do anything to win. It's really invaluable to have a guy like that.

"He's a coach's dream. He's always upbeat, always pleasant. If anything, we get on him about being a little bit nastier, but on the court he's not soft. He's just such an amazing person."

Wright almost didn't get a chance to experience that.

Clark's dream in high school was to follow his teammate and lifelong best friend, Kyle Lowry, to Villanova, and he made an oral commitment. But he spent his final year before college at Hargrave Military Academy in Virginia and told Wright he wanted to reopen the recruiting process.

He committed to Maryland and signed a national letter of intent in November 2004. But after he got there, school officials told Clark he was ineligible to play because a form listing his high school core courses was not filled out properly. He left.

With the help of one of his high school coaches, Clark won back his eligibility from the NCAA Clearinghouse. He applied to Villanova, was accepted, and reported to his first practice in December 2005.

Clark said he wasn't too worried about how he would be received by the players, many of whom got to know him during pickup games at Villanova. Plus he had Lowry for support. But he was a little concerned about his new coach.

"He never seemed like that [vindictive] type of guy," Clark said. "But I don't know what he was thinking. At the same time, I knew I had to gain some type of trust from him and show him I was here to do anything for the team. I think I gained his respect."

"I can't even remember now what was said," Wright said. "I know people got to him. But he was always the nicest kid. When he said he wanted to come back, it was a no-brainer for me."

Since he came in late, Clark, who has known Lowry since they were in the second grade growing up near each other around 21st and Lehigh, leaned on his friend to learn the Villanova system. He convinced Wright he could help the team, turning down the coach's offer to redshirt.

Clark held down a key bench role in Villanova's 2006 run to the Elite Eight. That was the only year he got to play with Lowry before Lowry went to the NBA. The two stay in touch.

"He always keeps me motivated and tells me to make sure I go out there and play as hard as I can and make sure everybody is doing the same," Clark said of Lowry, now with the Memphis Grizzlies. "He's teaching me a lot because he's on the next level, and that's where I'm trying to be."

Although Clark has started only about a third of his 118 career games, he will start tonight for the 11th straight contest. Though he won't reach his scoring averages (7.4, 7.1) of his previous two seasons, he has contributed at important times, such as his 13-point output in Monday night's win over Notre Dame.

But his scoring, doesn't begin to capture the full scope of what Clark has meant to his team - not even when combined with his rebounding and defense.

"He's the glue," Cunningham said. "He's given 110 percent dedication to this program. Any time you need something done on the court, Shane will do it. He's just shown such a great attitude on how to get things done. He never gets too riled up or too crazy. He's always cheery, always upbeat."

Clark said he still follows Maryland. For now, though, he hopes he has a few - make that several - more games in a Villanova uniform. But no matter how many there are, he'll always be thankful for the opportunity to play for the Wildcats.

Taking a Look at Villanova

Record: 24-6 overall, 12-5 Big East (fifth place).

RPI: 14 (through Tuesday's games).

Projected NCAA tournament seeding: Third by ESPN.com, collegerpi.com and the Sporting News; fourth by Sports Illustrated.

Next game: Tonight against Providence at the Pavilion.

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