Coming of Age

Player of the Week

Willie Cauley Stein - Kentucky

Willie Cauley-SteinWillie Cauley-SteinI'll be the first to admit that the word 'underwhelmed' has come to mind more than any other word while watching Cauley-Stein play during his first two years at Kentucky. Sure he was athletic and he could block shots but he was foul prone and lacked any offensive game. Flash forward to now and Cauley-Stein is arguably the most improved player in the SEC at this point. His numbers are up across the board in terms of points, rebounds, free throw percentage, assists and steals. But it is outside the "stats" where I see the biggest improvement. His footwork on both sides of the ball has improved immensely with the biggest jump on the defensive end. He looks quicker, he's sliding his feet, he's rotating better and he's become a force on the defensive end. He's not blocking as many shots but he is still altering his fair share and I would argue that the reduction in blocks is because teams are scared to drive the ball which means fewer opportunities. He had a career night against one of the better front lines in the country against Texas where he looked like a lottery pick most of the night and then on Sunday against Eastern Kentucky he guarded every player on the court at some point in the game and was again the best player on the court. He isn't a great offensive player just yet but that part of his game is improving and shouldn't hinder him from being a lottery pick this Summer.

Who's Hot

Marcus Thornton - Georgia

Much like the aforementioned Cauley-Stein, Thornton is a player that has never played up to his potential. After playing behind Trey Thompkins his freshman year and then battling injuries and inconsistent play during the next few seasons, Thornton has really come alive during his senior season. He's set or tied a career high in points on three occasions in 8 games and has finally transformed into the player that Mark Fox thought he was getting five years ago. Thornton had a career night against Chattanooga when he went 10-11 from the field and scored a career high 26 points and then followed that outing up with the best game I've seen him play in five years against Colorado. He was active on defense and he wanted the ball down the stretch and had two key buckets in the second half that helped key a Bulldog run that put away the Buffs. He has really improved his touch around the basket and is becoming more and more patient when his number is called. He's allowing his teammates to clear the defense out and give him room to operate and then he's using his wide frame to get good position. He's still not a pro prospect that this point but he'll get his opportunity to really show scouts how his game has developed with games against Arkansas, LSU, Florida and Kentucky on the schedule. Each of those teams is full of pro potential in the front court and will really give Thornton a measuring stick on just how far he's come.

Kentucky Defense

This could really just say see above because of the way that Cauley-Stein has come on this season on the defensive side of the ball but that wouldn't tell the whole story because this has been a team effort. Coach Cal teams have never really been known for their great defensive even though they've had their fair share of shot blockers come through (see Anthony Davis and Nerlens Noel) but this team is different. Here are two stats for you:

1. Kentucky's average height in the front court is greater than that of every team in the NBA outside of the Portland Trailblazers.

2. Kentucky blocks over 25% of an opposing team's two point attempts.

The first stat is quite impressive but it is the second stat that really jumps out at you. More than 25% of shots that are taken from inside the three point arc are blocked. Wow. Let that sink in. A large part of that can be attributed to stat number one but it can also be attributed to a team that knows how special they can be and a team that knows what it takes to win it all. Seven players that have played minutes this season were on that NCAA Runner-up from a season ago. The way they lost that game left a sour taste in their mouths and they are playing like it on the defensive side of the floor. They are hustling after loose balls, playing the passing lanes, running shooters off of the three point line and that isn't even including the defensive rotations that are so on point at times that you would think these guys have been playing together for years. Defense wins Championships, Kentucky knows it and they are playing like it up to this point.

Who's Not

Florida Gators

Losing four of five starters is tough for any team, especially when they are all seniors. But that's the hand that the Gators were dealt this season as they saw Wilbekin, Young, Prather and Yeguete exhaust their eligibility and turn the team over to an extremely young, albeit talented, roster. The results early on have been mixed. The youth and inexperience along with a constantly shuffling roster due to injuries and suspensions have left Billy Donovan's group searching for answers and under .500 this late in the season for the first time since the 97-98 season. The talent is there and so is the coaching but at this point the guys on the court just can't put together any consistency. They can look like world beaters as they did against Kansas in the first half. And just as you think they've turned the corner, they played the second half. Eli Carter's injury has really hurt this team as he was supposed to be their go-to scorer. They'll get some help come second semester as Duke transfer Alex Murphy will be come eligible but he's not the type of player to come in and save a season. What this team needs is to have their full complement of players on the court at the same time so they can finally start to mesh.

Top 5 Freshman

1. Karl Towns - Kentucky

Towns has been overshadowed by the play of Cauley-Stein early on this season but make no mistake about it, he's the real deal. He had the best game of his short college career against Eastern Kentucky (19 and 10) and has now scored in double figures in four straight games. He's a tremendous shot blocker and has combined with Cauley-Stein to form a "Twin Towers" of sorts for the Wildcats.

2. Devin Booker - Kentucky

Booker continues to have an up and down season with his shot as he went 1-13 from the field last week and 0-9 from distance but he's not pressing and he is taking shots in the rhythm and flow of the game. He's got a smooth jump shot and won't be held down for long. He has a shooter's mentality and will break out of his slump sooner rather than later. We've all seen the type of player he can be when his shot is falling and I expect to see more of that in the future.

3. Tyler Ulis - Kentucky

Ulis didn't play in Kentucky's 82-49 win over Eastern Kentucky due to an illness and while the scoreboard didn't show it, the Wildcats really missed his skills with the second unit. Early in the game Dominque Hawkins, who was filling in for Ulis, was removed after short stint due to his inability to get the offense going. Hawkins, a very solid player, just isn't the caliber of Ulis and for Kentucky to continue to be dominant, they need Ulis's defensive prowess and leadership with that second unit.

4. Trey Lyles - Kentucky

Seeing a trend here? Lyles has really been the forgotten guy in Kentucky's recruiting class due to the play of some of the other freshman but he's slowly having a very solid season. He's not the shot blocker that the rest of the front court is but he's probably the best offensive player at this point of the bunch. He has range and is versatile on both ends of the floor. He had a couple of nice baseline jumpers against Eastern Kentucky and was the most active on the glass that I've seen him all season as the Wildcats grabbed what was seemingly every defensive rebound there was to be had.

5. Devin Robinson - Florida

The Gators are struggling and are in need of a boost. Robinson provided that on Friday against Kansas before fouling out and Billy Donovan said after the game that he was very pleased with Robinson's play. Robinson had his best game of the season against the Jayhawks and is putting pressure on Donovan to increase his minutes.

Follow me on Twitter @CCroweNBADraft

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