Loving a couple guys from the SEC
Cauley-Stein, Murphy among those Rex is impressed with
Rex Chapman, an All-SEC player at Kentucky in 1986-87 and ’87-88 and an NABC All-American in 1988, gives his opinion each week on five players that impress. Player statistics are through Feb. 4.
Brandon Paul is a beautiful basketball player to watch play the game. He's such a graceful athlete and has such super balance that at times he can appear as though he's not putting all of his effort into the game. But the more I watch Paul the more I realize the dude is just athletically gifted and the effortless appearance is just that -- an appearance. Paul gets after it.
BP reminds me of a guy who was one of my all-time toughest guys to cover, Florida and NBA great "Mad Max" -- Vernon Maxwell. He was extremely quick. So is Paul. Maxwell could stop and pull from anywhere once he crossed midcourt. So can Paul. Maxwell made defensive plays, blocked shots, got timely steals and toyed with opponents with his athleticism, balance and raw speed. Brandon Paul does all of these things.
Although currently flirting with basketball's version of the Mendoza Line -- 33.3-percent from the 3-point line -- Paul is currently at 33.1-percent from beyond the arc. He's just a frigid 15-for-60 in his past 10 games for the Illini. It's no secret that Paul is the key to Illinois' success. How Paul goes, so goes Illinois -- and the Fighting Illini are 7-10 in this tough stretch.
Teams have really begun keying on Paul. They had to. After hanging 35 points on then-No. 10 Gonzaga on 10-of-16 shooting, Paul became a marked man. Opposing coaches are not taking their chances with Pau; they know he is capable of going "Gonzaga" on them at the drop of a hat. Paul is a super catch-and-shoot player with a quick release and really nice elevation on his jumper. Teams are switching a lot on interchanges and doing a super job of chasing him around screens -- combined with giving support off of point guard Tracy Abrams when Paul curls off of pin-downs. That is, when Paul curls into his jumper or tries to curl and catch in the paint -- Abrams defender is sagging off, or rather, "sitting in the lap" of Paul. In essence, Paul has his own man guarding him as well as Abrams man in many half court sets, due to Abrams shaky ability to shoot the basketball (28-percent on 20-for-70 this season).
I'm predicting a big finish to the season for Paul. A player of his caliber and talent, with such an explosive ability to score the basketball will not be held down for the long haul. And truly, what he is going through right now, with opposing defenses designing entire defensive game plans around stopping or slowing him as an offensive player, well, it's the ultimate respect as a scorer.
Illinois, after jumping out to a blazing 12-0 start and rising to No. 10 in the AP poll, has gone just 3-8 since. The Illini are 2-7 in the Big Ten and face No. 1 Indiana at home Thursday night. Following Thursday's game, Paul and his Illini teammates travel to Minneapolis to play No. 18 Minnesota on Sunday. With games remaining against Michigan and Ohio State, the Fighting Illini can still make a push and bully their way into the March Madness mix -- and if they do, my guy B. Paul will need to start rolling again. He'll need to go GONZAGA again here very soon and keep it rollin'. The thing is, though, Paul is fully capable of doing so.
I am as enamored with Willie Cauley-Stein as I am any player in college basketball this season. This includes teammate -- and pal -- Nerlens Noel.
WCS is every coach's dream. He's a young man who's potential ceiling as a basketball player is as high as any amateur player's in the country. If you take his 7-foot frame, broad shoulders, great hands, feet which possess the quickness of a 6-foot guard combined with the fact that Cauley-Stein only knows one way to play the game -- all out, all of the time ... well, name a coach in America who wouldn't do anything for a prospect with this particular kind of skill set. And if you think "playing hard" isn't a skill -- think again. It absolutely is. So many players with talent never understand that playing hard most always is the difference between being a good player and a great player. Or, being a guy who almost made it versus a player who actually ends up having a pro career of some kind. Such a shame.
Fortunately for UK, WCS came to school this past fall hungry and humble. This is a young man who was a 7-foot football wide receiver for Northwest High School in Olathe, Kan. Heck, he caught 57 passes as a senior, and had more than 1,100 yards as a junior. WCS also played tennis throughout his high school years. Think he was able to cover some ground on the tennis court? Definitely.
WCS can be any kind of player and prior to having his knee scoped three weeks ago, he had become a starter for the Wildcats and the team's best perimeter defender. Cauley-Stein blocks shots, runs like a deer and has more natural scoring ability right now than does teammate Noel -- Kentucky's Mr. Everything. Coaches at Kentucky absolutely love WCS' work ethic and the fact that he’s such a perceptive youngster. “Like a sponge,” assistant coach Kenny Payne told me last week, when describing Cauley-Stein.
I went back to Lexington recently and caught two Kentucky practices and a game. If an MVP would have been given for those two long practice sessions following a very bad performance and loss by the Wildcats at Alabama, there is no question that anybody watching those two workouts would have awarded that trophy to Willie Cauley-Stein. I began talking with longtime friend and current Kentucky strength and conditioning coach Rock Oliver. He told me, “[Cauley-Stein] is phenomenal. He really started dedicating himself in the weight room and in the approach to his diet about two weeks ago, and the guy has gone from 238 pounds to 248 adding 10 pounds of muscle.”
Keep an eye on WCS as he returns to full strength during the next couple of weeks while coming back from the knee injury. This is the first time in Cauley-Stein's life that he has devoted an extended period of time to only basketball. He improves and is learning at a very rapid pace given his smarts, feel for the game and dedication. He’s gaining confidence by the day and seeing real improvement in his body and with his strength. I’ve said it many times before: Confidence is a beautiful thing.
The WCS/Noel pairing provide the Kentucky faithful with a twin towers version of Bowie/Turpin circa 1984. These kids are fun to watch and will prove to be a load for SEC opponents as we hit crunch time in the conference season. Willie Cauley-Stein can become any kind of player before his playing days are over.
Erik Murphy is the straw that stirs the drink for Billy Donovan's No. 2 Florida Gators.
Murphy, who seriously considered transferring schools during the 2011-12 campaign, is thriving this year for Donovan with a team, who unlike last season, appears to be "one for all and all for one."
The Gators have found the "team reset" button and just as quickly as they were jacking up one-pass 3-pointers last season like there was no tomorrow and virtually freezing out anybody on the roster who was taller than about 6-foot-3. They have found that one thing that every coach in America lays in bed and dreams of and prays for each and every offseason -- chemistry. And Erik Murphy is certainly being rewarded for sticking through the tough times in Gainesville and deciding to end his college basketball career in the place it started.
Erik Murphy is a 6-foot-10 knock-down shooter. In fact, he is one of the most efficient shooters in the college game. Murphy has been on a tear of late, too. In the Gators' past six contests, EM has bombed in 18 of 28 attempts from three. That's a guy who's cooking with grease. Feelin' hot, hot, hot!
THrough the years I have become more and more of a fan of the big man who can spread the floor like a guard. In today's game he's become such an asset. I was a bit brainwashed, like most guys growing up when I did, made to believe that guys 6-foot-9 or taller belonged in the low post. I still feel that guys with Murphy's skill set are unfairly viewed as somewhat softer players than traditional back-to-the-basket big men. I know plenty of soft true post players and trust me, there's nothing soft about guys like Bill Laimbeer or Brian Cardinal or Murphy's fellow Gator, Matt Bonner. All three of those 3-point shooters are guys who'd drop the gloves in a heartbeat to defend themselves or a teammate. In fact, a couple of those mentioned might just prefer it. Murphy is very much the same.
Murphy is currently the Gators' second-leading scorer at 12.9 ppg. Kenny Boynton leads the way for Donovan's crew, for now at least, at 13.4ppg. That's Boynton of the infamous Boynton/Erving Walker backcourt of the past few years at Florida, which combined to make up my all-time least favorite guard tandem's in college basketball history. If it was hard for me to simply watch the Gators play during the Boynton/Walker years, I cannot even imagine how it must have been for big men like Erik Murphy and man-child Patric Young (to be detailed soon in this column) to play with guards who were so oblivious to what was really happening on the floor for Florida basketball.
To Kenny Boynton's credit, he is making up for his past basketball sins this season and what a difference it has made.
A buddy of mine the other day asked me about Murphy. I told him I thought that he was/is the key to Florida's success this season and how he plays down the stretch will determine how far this Florida team will ultimately advance in the big dance. He said to me, "I feel like Murphy's lost a little bit of focus as conference play has begun." But then he caught himself and qualified his initial thought with, "I know it's hard to stay focused when you're winning second games by an average of 26 points."
I couldn't, and can't, say it any better.
Erik Murphy gives the Florida Gators a legit 6-foot-10 senior floor-spreader.That's a luxury that most every team in college basketball this season just can't match.
Deshaun Thomas provides Thad Matta's Buckeyes with one of the more unique college basketball players in the country.
Thomas is a silky smooth, somewhat unorthodox, lefty forward who can post up extremely well and also step out on the floor and possibly knock down six or seven bombs from behind the arc, if so inclined.
He currently leads the rough-and-tumble Big Ten in scoring at at a career-best 20 ppg and 6 rpg -- also a career-top mark. I love being able to watch young players come into college, cut their teeth as freshmen, start figuring out things as sophomores and then become grown men playing against boys as juniors and seniors. Deshaun Thomas has certainly achieved that man-amongst-boys status in his junior campaign at OSU.
Thomas came to OSU as a highly touted high school player. Some thought he was possibly the top two-guard in his class. Deshaun has virtually become a small forward as a Buckeye and a player I believe may have, without a doubt, the sweetest mid-range game in all of college hoops. Thomas butters his bread by finding seams in the defense, cutting, receiving the rock and then putting up a variety of leaning, quick release floaters and beautiful lefty jump shots. I really could sit and watch him, with his one-piece stroke, shoot the basketball for hours on end. Right now, Thomas reminds me a little bit of St. John's Walter Berry. "The Truth" was a bit bouncier and taller, but Deshaun and Walter both had that feathery mid-range game. Thomas shoots from range much better than him, however.
The one knock on Thomas is that his motor doesn't always run on "high." Sometimes he coasts a bit. But, like with most everything else since he arrived in Columbus, Deshaun Thomas has improved how hard he plays significantly with each passing year. Thomas has become one of my favorite players to watch play the game on the offensive end this season in college basketball. I'm diggin' DT, er, "D. Truth II."
Rotnei Clarke, Butler's senior transfer from Arkansas, had the scare of his young lifetime a few weeks ago. On a fastbreak, Clarke had the ball headed toward a breakaway layup when he was tracked down by a Dayton player whom he had just stolen the ball from, and was fouled hard as he went to elevate toward the rim. Clarke was pushed into the goal stanchion head-first.
Clarke ended up being very lucky, as initially he had no feeling in his legs and only a general tingling in his arms. Almost miraculously, Clarke returned to the Bulldogs last week at Temple after missing only two weeks of practice and three of Butler's games. Rotnei Clarke is nothing if not tough.
I watched Clarke play for three years for Arkansas. I saw a kid who played every game and every play with the same level of intensity -- all out. Throughout his college career he's had one of the quickest releases in college basketball. Being a bit undersized having such a quick release is a huge equalizer. Clarke has a knack of regularly finding the basket with success over taller, longer, more athletic defenders and has figured out along the way that yes, the ball needs to be released before the peak of your jump, but that it's equally as important to get that last bounce/hop off of the ground a split-second quicker than the player defending you. If a player can do those two things, without thinking about doing them, then the size of the player guarding you is of little to no consequence. Rotnei Clarke has figured out this trick -- and the only way something like this is achieved is by playing thousands of hours of basketball prior to getting to the college ranks. And truly, being able to get your shot off by the time you arrive on a college campus, is most always either something you have or you simply just do not have.
Maybe the greatest undersized player of all time who ended up having a Hall of Fame career due to being able to get his shot off versus bigger opponents is Georgetown and NBA-MVP/All-Star Allen Iverson. Go back and watch, in slow-motion, Clarke's last second-buzzer beating dagger to win the game versus Marquette early this season. You'll see exactly the early, quick release combined with the quicker bounce off of the floor than the Marquette opponent defending him. It really was a thing of beauty.
With Rotnei Clarke working his way back into form during the next week or two, look for Brad Stevens' Bulldogs to rebound from their recent 2-2 skid and begin to look more and more like the team who had won 11 in a row and risen to as high as No. 9 in the nation. That included handing current and then-No. 1 ranked Indiana its first loss of the season, just prior to Clarke’s freaky injury. He's a gamer.
Rex Chapman played at Kentucky from 1986-88. He was a two-time All-SEC selection as well as an NABC All-American in 1988 before opting for the NBA Draft. He was the No. 1 choice — eighth overall — of Charlotte and played for the Hornets (1988-92), Washington Bullets (1992-95), Miami Heat (1995-96) and Phoenix Suns (1996-2000). Follow Rex on Twitter @rexchapman