After weeks of continuity, the South Carolina basketball starting five quietly made a change prior to the start of the Missouri matchup, with freshman Collin Murray-Boyles being inserted into the starting lineup in the stead of Stephen Clark, the graduate transfer from The Citadel.
In a perfect world, that mid-season switch wouldn’t have had to happen. Collin Murray-Boyles had already “earned” the starting spot in the lineup before the season even started, per Lamont Paris. But mononucleosis doesn’t care about what’s earned and what’s given. Murray-Boyles’s preseason diagnosis was a big hit to the team’s plans in the non-conference portion of the schedule, even accounting for the fact that Gamecocks played well above expectations in his absence.
Ultimately, instead of Murray-Boyles, Clark was the one to step up into the starting lineup during the time the freshman missed. The 6 '8 forward, who had 88 starts under his belt across four seasons in Charleston and had played against Lamont Paris while the latter was at UTC, was a perfectly fine, steadying substitute in the starting five.
Though Clark, in his 15 starts, averaged just 3.0 PPG, that simply wasn’t his niche, especially in an offensive scheme that places a premium on outside shooting. Clark was, and still is with Murray-Boyles in the starting five, a great interior defender and a very good rebounder.
As mentioned in previous weekly reviews, Clark didn’t receive the same range of minutes as the other starters (Johnson, Cooper, Stute, and Mack) during his stay at the start of the lineup, ranking behind Jacobi Wright and Zachary Davis in MPG over the first 15 games.
That doesn’t mean, however, that Clark wasn’t or isn’t valuable. The experienced big man stepped up into the starting lineup in a time of need and provided stability. One underrated aspect of his game is his ball vision. Despite his height, Clark has an assist percentage of 14.4%, ranking in the 89th percentile amongst forwards.
In a way, Clark is a microcosm of South Carolina’s season: success built on unselfishness. It wasn’t just a coach’s decision to insert Murray-Boyles into the starting lineup, as Clark was the one to suggest the move to Coach Paris.
“Stephen Clark came to my office and mentioned it to me,” Paris said. “I had been thinking about it also but (it) tells you what kind of kid he is. That is a big-time gesture. Once that happened, certainly, it was the right time to make the change.”
That change happened prior to tip-off in Columbia, Missouri, in what turned into a tightly-contested matchup against the Tigers. Murray-Boyles made an immediate impact, picking up a layup and an assist within the first two minutes. While he had appeared in nine games prior to the start against Missouri, the freshman only saw his minutes really take a jump with the game against Elon that Meechie Johnson missed, when Murray-Boyles recorded 17 minutes played. Since then, he’s recorded between 14-26 minutes in six games.
One reason for the swap, and one of the reasons it took longer to make the change, is the physicality that Murray-Boyles brings to the game. Though he’s listed as an inch shorter than Clark at 6 '7, he’s over 20 pounds bigger, listed at 231 compared to Clark’s listed weight of 208. Murray-Boyles can bully opponents on the interior reliably, and while Clark has adequate interior offensive skills as well, Murray-Boyles simply has a different skill set in the post, and can draw more opponents inside, leaving more Gamecocks open on the perimeter.
The Columbia native couldn’t, however, use the same amount of force he was accustomed to as he recovered from mono, a fatigue-inducing illness. “He probably weighs 10 more pounds now than he did the first time he was cleared to play,” Lamont Paris said earlier this week. Murray-Boyles has had to readjust to playing college basketball as he regains strength, allowing Clark to maintain his starting role until the Missouri game.
In the three games that Clark has come off the bench, his role has varied from sporadic to key reserve. He didn’t record a full minute on the court in the loss to Georgia, but he recorded two and four rebounds respectively in appearances of nine and 13 minutes against Missouri and Arkansas. In his role, he excels.
Not every player is destined to be “the guy” for a team, and that’s totally ok. In the silliest of terms, but in a way that hopefully makes sense, Clark fits the “a dude” role better than the “the guy” role. Being “a dude” is certainly a compliment, reminiscent of players who will do whatever they need for the team to perform at the highest level.
This is a point that I make sure to hammer down when I can, but the gap between Meechie Johnson or B.J. Mack and Stephen Clark is much, much smaller than the gap between Stephen Clark and 99.9% of people reading this. Stephen Clark is a high-value, highly-skilled, Power 6 college basketball player. This is a man who led a D-1 basketball conference in block percentage three years in a row at a military college. But right now, the best course of action for Lamont Paris’s group is to have Collin Murray-Boyles in the starting lineup, something that Clark himself suggested.
Murray-Boyles has been one of the best rebounders on the team, averaging 5.3 RPG over his past four appearances, the only games this season that he’s recorded 20+ minutes played. Although he struggled from the free-throw line against Georgia, he still ended up with 8 points, 6 rebounds, and 4 blocks, half of the team’s block total.
That dynamism is why the freshman is so valuable for this team, and it’s just one reason why he’s the fifth freshman in the past three seasons of Gamecock basketball to start multiple games, joining GG Jackson and Zachary Davis last year, as well as Josh Gray and Devin Carter in the last season of Frank Martin’s tenure.
It also symbolizes a bit of a changing of the guard for the Gamecock basketball program. Stephen Clark doesn’t have another year of eligibility, and barring injury, it’s not likely that he’ll start another game unless, perhaps, for a senior night honor. Myles Stute was knocked out of the starting lineup with a shoulder injury, but Zachary Davis got the start in place of Stute, not Clark.
Meanwhile, Murray-Boyles seems to be the power forward of the future for Lamont Paris and company, with three additional years of eligibility remaining after this season for the freshman.
It will be exciting to see what the future holds for the talented freshman, but it’s important not to forget to commend Clark for holding down the fort while Murray-Boyles made his way back to full strength. Both have played pivotal roles for the Gamecocks in Lamont Paris’s second season, and they’re deserving of their respective flowers.