It's the most wonderful time of the year. Just ask 13-0 San Diego State, currently seated in the Top 10. Or the Central Florida Knights, ranked in the Top 25 for the first time in school history. Those not in the holiday spirit? If you happen to play for a team that took its non-conference schedule too lightly and ended up with an "L" or two (looking at you, Tennessee). Or if you're a Kansas State fan, and you just found out that Jacob Pullen was suspended for three games for receiving impermissible benefits. Or if you're a Big East team not ranked in the Top 10 and left wondering, "How on earth are we supposed to compete with those guys this year?" But enough negatives. Let's look at who's been feeding off of that holiday cheer in this week's Barometer.
1. Klay Thompson, G, Washington State - The team with the Pac-10's best record? That would be the Washington State Cougars, led by Thompson. True, they've played a cupcake schedule thus far other than Kansas State, but Thompson has excelled nevertheless. The 6-foot-6 junior guard averages 21.0 points, 4.6 rebounds and 5.0 assists per game. He's shooting 48.1 percent from the floor, a vast improvement from pervious years, showing maturity and poise in shot selection. The Cougars might not be able to keep pace once conference play begins, but it certainly won't be because of Thompson.
2. Nolan Smith, G, Duke - As if you needed any more of a reason to start Smith, he's taken his game to new heights since freshman phenom Kyrie Irving went down. Smith averages 4.6 rebounds and 5.4 assists per game, blowing his previous years' averages out of the water. His scoring has remained consistent, though, at a cool 17.1 points per tilt. He's also shooting 52.0 percent from the floor. Smith's turnovers are up since the ball is in his hands now more than ever, but that's a small price to pay for the senior's incredible productivity.
3. Xavier Silas, G, NIU - The only player in the country scoring more than Connecticut's Kemba Walker? That would be Silas, the Huskies' 6-5 senior guard. Silas averages 28.1 points per game, and has already scored more than 30 points in four contests this season. Shooting 47.5 percent from three-point land certainly helps, as Silas has hit 54.8 percent of his shots overall from the field. With averages of 4.5 rebounds and 2.1 assists per contest as well, Silas is among the better kept secrets in the nation.
4. Trevor Mbakwe, F, Minnesota - Mbakwe has been a terror on the glass, pulling down double-digit rebounds in seven of Minnesota's 11 games this season. The 6-8 junior takes high-percentage shots as well, hitting 61.9 percent from the floor. He thrives on contact in the post; in fact, Mbakwe went to the free-throw line a staggering 20 times in a win earlier this season over Cornell. Not surprisingly then, Mbakwe averages a double-double for the Golden Gophers, and should continue to feast on weaker opponents on the boards.
5. Nikola Vucevic, F, USC - Vucevic has really taken over the scoring burden for the Trojans this season, increasing his points per game average from 10.7 as a sophomore to 16.2 as a junior, despite a minimal increase in minutes played per game. The 6-10 behemoth has even stepped out and hit a few treys early this season. Vucevic has always been a standout rebounder, averaging 9.4 boards last season and 10.4 through 11 games this year. Although he'll need some help from his teammates for USC to go anywhere this season, Vucevic should still get his numbers night in and night out.
6. Terrence Jones, F, Kentucky - Although Enes Kanter and Brandon Knight got the pub entering the season for the Wildcats, it's clear that Jones is the real jewel of this class. The 6-8 freshman averages 18.9 points and 10.0 rebounds for coach John Calipari. His defense has been most impressive, using his length to swat 2.2 shots per contest, while stealing 1.5 balls per game as well. His free-throw shooting needs some work, and expanding his range out to the three-point line may be the next step in his development. However, Jones can score at will and is extremely gifted athletically. If the Wildcats are to make a run in the NCAA Tournament in 2011, they will go only as far as T-Jones can carry them.
1. Anatoly Bose, G-F, Nicholls State
2. Delroy James, F, URI
3. Randy Culpepper, G, UTEP
4. Kevin Thompson, F, Morgan State
5. Keith Clanton, F, UCF
1. Renardo Sidney, F, Mississippi State - Sidney has been suspended for one game for conduct detrimental to the team, the latest blow in what has been an extremely checkered and disappointing college career for the 6-10 big man. The sophomore, who barely sniffed the court as a freshman, had played just one game this season. Sidney sat out the first nine games due to an NCAA-imposed suspension stemming from receipt of improper benefits. It's a shame with Sidney's talents that he can't seem to stay on the court and out of trouble.
2. Kim English, G, Missouri - Marcus Denmon has taken over as the featured guard for the streaking Tigers, relegating English to second fiddle status. English hasn't been non-existent, but he's fourth on the team in scoring and shooting just 42.6 percent from the field. He's been dishing a bit more, but otherwise has seen a decline in his statistics in what was supposed to be a breakout season.
3. Jeffery Taylor, F, Vanderbilt - Taylor hasn't taken the next step in his development either, with remarkably similar stats to his first two seasons at Vandy. His line isn't bad (13.0 ppg, 4.6 rpg, 2.3 apg), but nobody would confuse those numbers with superstar figures. Perhaps Taylor will get used more once the Commodores soar into conference play, but it's tough to expect Taylor's stats to get much better against stiffer competition in the SEC.
4. Herb Pope, F, Seton Hall - If you haven't read about Herb Pope's trials and tribulations on his way to Seton Hall, do yourself a favor and look up his amazing story. From a basketball perspective this season, however, Pope has been a mild disappointment, managing just 8.2 points and 7.7 rebounds after averaging a double-double last year. He's also battling a left foot injury, which kept him out of the Hall's last game against NJIT. Wait until Pope regains his stride before using him.
5. Curtis Kelly, F, Kansas State - You already know about Kelly's teammate, Jacob Pullen, being suspended. But Kelly was involved too, and could be gone for much longer than just the three games that Pullen will miss. Kelly and Pullen allegedly received impermissible benefits in the form of clothing at a department store. Kelly had just started to percolate for the Wildcats too, as he was second on the squad in points per game. An extended absence could spell potential doom for K-State, one of the preseason favorites.
6. Scotty Hopson, G, Tennessee - Hopson has been maddeningly inconsistent for the Vols. He looked awesome against Pitt on Dec. 11, shooting 10-for-13 from the floor en route to 27 points in the upset victory. In three games since then? The 6-7 junior has shot just 8-of-31, all losses for UT. Even worse, two of those losses came to mid-majors in the form of Oakland and Charlotte. With coach Bruce Pearl suspended for the first part of SEC play, Hopson will be asked to lead the Vols both on and off the floor, which may be a bit too much for someone struggling himself.