Player of the Week
Jordan Clarkson - Missouri
Clarkson's numbers against NC State weren't all that impressive but down the stretch when his team needed a bucket or some clutch free throws, he was money. It was his three point play with under five minutes to go that really got his team going and put them ahead in a game in which they had yet to have a lead. He was also huge on the defensive side of the ball as well. He was matched up with the much quicker Cat Barber for most of the night and he seemed to force Barber out of his comfort zone in the second half and forced the freshman into tough spots that led to turnovers and forced shots early in the shot clock. It was a big time performance from a player that has sky rocketed up draft boards over the last two months.
He's one of the most lethal scorers in the SEC and is now averaging over 20 points per game this season. He's got a good stroke from distance and really controls the flow of the game. It will be interesting to see how he fares against some of the better, more talented guards in the SEC that he'll begin to see from night to night.
James Young - Kentucky
Young continues to be a huge "X-Factor" for this Wildcat team. When he's playing well, so does everyone else. On Saturday afternoon against Louisville it was Young t hat seemingly hit big shot after big shot in the team's win over the higher ranked Cardinals. He has such a smooth stroke that you feel like the ball should go through the net every time he lets it go. If you look at Young's shooting percentages, you'd probably wonder why he's so highly touted. He's shooting below 40% from the field and from distance and is shooting below 70% from the charity stripe. A lot of that has to do with him no letting the game come to him and getting a little out of control and rushed at times on the court. When he slows down and plays within himself he looks like the best player on this team outside of Julius Randle.
It will be his continued progression on the defensive end that will be key for his draft status as well as for the team. He has the ability and size to be a lock down defender a la [Player: Michael Kidd-Gilchrist]. He doesn't have the same athleticism or instincts as MKG nor does he have the same motor but if he can somehow become motivated to try and take over on both ends of the floor then the sky is the limit for this kid with his ability to shoot the ball.
Patric Young - Florida
No one has been more critical of Young over the last three years than me. He came in with so much hype and potential. To some he was even considered a potential one-and-done player. Here we are half way through his senior season and we've still yet to see the type of game that scouts raved about just three short years ago. And while Young may never grow into the type of game changing big man that he was hyped to be, what he has become is a very solid rebounding and defensive big man. He can score a little but doesn't have much range outside of about 8-10 feet. He lacks touch on the ball when he's in the post and even when he uses his size to play through contact and draw fouls, he only hits free throws at a 50% clip.
But for all of the criticism that he's gotten over the last few years, what he has done and continues to do is be a consistent player for Billy Donovan. He's played in 37 games in each of his first three seasons and is on pace to play in at least that many this season. He's averaged 10+ points and 5+ rebounds per game in each of the last three seasons and on Sunday became just the 50th player in Gator history to score 1,000 points. His stats won't wow you and neither will any particular part of his game but in the midst of a season where lineups have been wildly inconsistent due to ineligibility, suspensions and injuries, #4 is out there fighting each and every night.
Sindarius Thornwell - South Carolina
With the way Thornwell played early in the season, it was easy to forget that he's only a freshman, playing on a team that lacks a lot of talent. He's by far Frank Martin's best player and opposing teams know that. Over his last four games the shooting guard has seen both his minutes and his shot opportunities dwindle. He's shooting less than 40% on the season and is struggling to find his shot recently.
The Gamecocks might not get Bruce Ellington back this season if he decides that he's going to play football full-time as he'll be getting ready for the NFL combine during March Madness. If Ellington doesn't come back to the team then there will be an even bigger need for Thornwell to step up and get back to his early season form. Even with Thornwell playing well, I don't expect this team to make much noise but his progression during conference play this season will go a long way in telling where this team will be heading into the 2014-2015 season.
Top 5 Teams Heading Into Conference Play
1. Florida Gators
The Gators have taken down the likes of Kansas, Florida State and Memphis early on this season and had it not been for a miracle shot by Shabazz Napier they would have taken down UConn as well. This team is finally getting healthy and getting all of their pieces back into the rotation. Chris Walker should be eligible anytime now and adding a guy like that to a team as deep and as talented as the Gators already are is scary. Defense is still their calling card and they are one of the best defensive teams in the country but they are more athletic than they've been in a few years and can put up points in bunches.
2. Mizzouri Tigers
That win on the road over a good NC State team was just what Frank Haith's squad needed heading into conference play. The Tigers rely heavily on the aforementioned Clarkson and thus far, he hasn't disappointed. This team is more well rounded than past Tiger teams have been. They have size up front, long athletic players on the wing and a point guard than can do a little bit of everything. The only question with this team is depth. If Clarkson or Jabari Brown go down then that could really hurt this team's chances at challenging the likes of Florida and Kentucky for the SEC crown.
3. Kentucky Wildcats
This team, like so many Calipari teams before, has a lot of learning and growing up to do. You can see it in every game they play. They look lackadaisical on defense at times, they take bad shots, they force the issue when they shouldn't and for some reason they can't hit free throws when they need to. But even with all of those things against them, they are still one of the most talented teams top to bottom in the country. If the Harrison twins can continue to grow and develop as team-first players then this team has a shot do be really good come March. Watch out for Dominique Hawkins. The unheralded freshman and former Mr. Basketball in the State of Kentucky has really been getting some big minutes off the bench and has become a defensive specialist of sorts against smaller, quicker guards.
4. LSU Tigers
The verdict is still out on the Tigers. They have a deep roster and the talent to compete in the SEC but we still don't know much about them because their OOC schedule is fairly weak. They beat an average Butler team by two points back in early December but that's about it with regards to quality wins. They played Memphis really well but couldn't get enough stops down the stretch in that one to make a comeback. [Player: Johnny O'Bryant III] and Jordan Mickey have slowly become one of the best rebounding frontcourts in the country. They are long, athletic and have a knack for finding the ball off the rim. The Tigers will need more of that along with increased production from Shavon Coleman, who is one of the more underrated players on this LSU roster, to compete with the big boys of the conference.
5. Tennessee Volunteers
The Volunteers have two things that I like heading into conference play. Experience and good coaching. Their starting lineup boasts three seniors and two juniors which will be key heading down the stretch as the team makes their case for the NCAA Tournament. They also have a coach that is one of the more underrated play callers in the SEC. The team also has one of the more versatile and talented players in the conference in Jordan McRae. He's a guy that can do a little bit of everything on the basketball court. He doesn't have elite level athleticism but he can get up. He has an above average offensive game and can play/guard multiple positions on the basketball court. He's a skinny kid but he doesn't lack heart nor the drive to succeed and in crunch time, there's not that many guys in the SEC that I'd rather have with the ball in their hands than McRae.
Follow me on Twitter @CroweClayton
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