Monk, Cats Tease Potential in Dominant Win

Malik Monk had struggled through two games, which led to some worries on the part of Kentucky fans.

The Wildcats, you see, would need their dynamic guard in top form when they took on the tough tests their rugged non-conference schedule had to offer.

Well, when the stage got big, Monk stepped up. John Calipari thought he would, and it wasn’t just some hunch.

“Malik Monk had one of the best shootarounds that any of my players have had in the last few years,” Calipari said. “And I expected he would go in and play well.”

With the attention of the college basketball world on Madison Square Garden for the annual State Farm Champions Classic, Monk proved his coach right. He and the freshmen-laden Wildcats had a coming-out party in the Big Apple, with No. 2 UK (3-0) racing past No. 13 Michigan State (0-2), 69-48, behind Monk’s 23 points.

“The group of freshmen, they’re not ordinary freshmen,” said Isaiah Briscoe, who scored 21 points. “They pick up things fast, they listen and they know how to play basketball. We don’t even really run a lot of plays, so that’s big for the freshmen. Malik played well today. I knew he was due for a good game shooting wise. I told him that before the game. He shot well.”

Monk’s shooting was key in making the Spartans pay for their defensive game plan, which was centered on stopping penetration. His seven 3-pointers had Michigan State reeling by the end of the evening.

“We knew they were going to pack the lane in because (De’Aaron) Fox and Briscoe get in the lane every time they can,” Fox said. “So, I just had to be prepared. They set me up well and I was just able to knock down the shots.”

His big night came on the heels of combined 3-for-12 shooting from deep against Canisius and Stephen F. Austin. The improvement came thanks to both that solid shootaround and continuing effort he’s been making with his shot.

“Staying low and stepping into my shot every time, not being casual,” Monk said. “Coach Cal likes to say that. Staying low, stepping into my shot and just every shot the same. Try to focus on every shot the same and it goes smooth.”

Treating every shot the same in an environment like the one Monk played in on Tuesday night, however, is easier said than done. Though the gyms aren’t quite as well known back home, Monk counted on his experiences as a high schooler to cope.

“Coming from Bentonville, Arkansas, I was like the top player in Arkansas, so every game was packed for me,” Monk said. “I had a lot of adversity because I committed to Kentucky. I’m used to a lot of fans and ‘ooohs’ and all that stuff. Adversity, I’m used to all that.”

That’s why Monk was able to put all the hype to the side and focus first on that shootaround, then on the game. In the process, he gave Calipari the ammunition he needed to make one of the most powerful points that came out of the team’s trip to New York City.

“We had two other players on the team that had so-so shootarounds and guess what,” Calipari said. “They had so-so games, and it was a great lesson. Because getting him and De’Aaron to not be casual. They think they’re getting ready for an AAU game. They’re hungry. They need a hot dog right before the game. ‘Can I get something to eat?’ What are you talking about?

“So these guys play casual, they practice casual and that’s what we gotta teach them. You can’t be. They gotta have another habit. They gotta create another habit of really getting after it.”

UK certainly got after it against the Spartans, particularly on defense. The Cats suffocated their opponents to the tune of 0.66 points per possession and 20 turnovers, making Michigan State play like “an AAU team,” according to Tom Izzo.

Coach Cal wasn’t going to get carried away, though. He remembers what UK looked like a couple nights ago.

“It’s the same freshmen that played against Canisius and we were down with three minutes to go in the first half,” Calipari said. “We got a long way to go. This shows us what we’re capable of. Now we have to build from this and have to convince them of that, that if we become a great defensive team…”
Calipari didn’t finish that sentence, perhaps because there’s no telling what the future looks like if the Cats realize their defensive potential.