COLUMBIA — If Missouri point guard Jordan Clarkson looks like he’s playing basketball at a higher speed than everyone else when he’s on the floor, there’s a reason for that.
He’s making up for lost time.
No.24 Missouri Tigers (9-0) vs. Western Michigan Broncos (5-3)
Tip-Off: 6 p.m.
Place: Mizzou Arena
Radio: Tiger Radio Network
Western Michigan notable alumni: Actor and comedian Tim Allen
Western Michigan's last NCAA Tournament appearance: 2004
After sitting out for the required full year after transferring from Tulsa, Clarkson has wasted no time emerging, not just as Missouri’s best player, but arguably as the league’s best as well.
His 6-foot, 5-inch frame at the top of the key has given defenders fits and his ability to drive the lane has given Missouri a complement to free-spirit shooters Jabari Brown and Earnest Ross, both of whom have taken at least half of their field goal attempts from behind the 3-point line. Although conference play doesn’t start until January, Clarkson leads Southeastern Conference players in scoring at 20.2 points per game.
“Very seldom do you give high praise to a guy who hasn’t played a game yet,” Missouri head coach Frank Haith said. “But there were practices where he was probably the best guy on the court — he had those moments last year. So you knew he’d be a pretty good player. But he hadn’t done it at this level and against the talent that he’s going to play against consistently.”
Clarkson proved last week that his talent wasn’t just reserved for the mid-major opponents of the early-season schedule.
First he scored a game-high 25 points on Dec. 5 against a West Virginia team that was widely regarded as the first true test on Missouri’s schedule. Two days later, Clarkson scored 17 first half points against UCLA on national television in a win over the then-No.18 Bruins. The exceptional week earned Clarkson honors such as SEC Player of the Week, National Player of the Week by the blog College Sports Madness, and a spot on CBSSports.com’s National Player of the Year watch list.
“He’s very, very good,” West Virginia coach Bob Huggins said after Missouri defeated the Mountaineers 80-71.
This is the reason Clarkson came to Missouri, for the opportunity to showcase his game on the national stage.
“I definitely wanted to come to a place where I could play against high-caliber talent, especially some of the best programs in college basketball,” he said.
The combination of instinct and natural ability — to score, to distribute, to be counted on with the ball — has fostered a strong sense of trust between Clarkson and his coaches. Clarkson is averaging more than 32 minutes played per game, a number that would be higher if two early fouls against Hawaii hadn’t forced him to the bench for almost an entire half.
Clarkson’s success hasn’t surprised him. Instead, he considers it the manifestation of the extensive work he put into his game during his year off. Like all transfers, he practiced long hours with assistant coach Tim Fuller. The main objective? To ease Clarkson’s transition from shooting guard to point guard, the position where he has started every game this season.
Fuller has the size and look of a drill sergeant, and he motivated Clarkson like a drill sergeant would.
“I’d hear him for about five minutes straight while I was running up and down the court,” Clarkson said with a laugh. “Some days I’d get mad at him because he was pushing me so hard. But it was what was best for me.
The private sessions — before practices, after practices, before games, after games — were strenuous, but natural. Fuller was integral in recruiting Clarkson. He got him on the phone. He got him to campus. “He was my guy,” Clarkson said. “He was almost like one of my uncles, you know?”
So it felt right for Fuller to be challenging Clarkson, for them to be together on the court every day.
"Every game day was his game day," Fuller said. "Even though he wasn’t playing in games we went through a hard, vigorous workout. We tried to make sure we kept his killer instinct alive."