Monk, team defense show improvement on big stage against Michigan State


Kentucky guard Malik Monk dribbles the ball down the court during the game against the Michigan State Spartans at Madison Square Garden on November 15, 2016 in New York, NY.

Anthony Crawford

In a game that featured two young teams playing under the bright lights in Madison Square Garden, it was No. 2 UK that didn’t falter but instead showcased two qualities that will be key in it becoming a great team down the road in the 69-48 win over No. 12 Michigan State. 

Two things were present in the Champions Classic victory over the Spartans that the Cats had yet to see all year — a consistent effort on defense and the full scoring capabilities of freshman Malik Monk. Both came out on the big stage for UK and the result was an overwhelming victory over a top-15 ranked, Tom Izzo-coached squad.

When looking at the win though, Monk’s play stands out the most. A hot start from deep for resulted in him going 3-for-3 from three point land during a 14-2 run that helped the Cats initially take control of the game.

From there he cooled off some, but not much as he still finished 7-11 from three while scoring a total of 23 points in the game.

The scoring outburst was a positive sign for a guard who came to UK largely regarded as streaky shooter, but head coach John Calipari has mentioned how it’s a process with these freshmen a lot this year and this game from Monk is proof.

“(Monk) had an unbelievable shootaround today. I’ve done this for 30 years. They had two other players on the team that had so-so shootarounds. And guess what? They had so-so games,” Calipari said. “And it was a great lesson. Because getting him and De’Aaron to not be causal. They think they’re getting ready for an AAU game.  That’s what we have to teach them. They gotta have another habit. They have to create a habit of really getting after it.”

The habits that Calipari has to break with Monk are present in his overall field goal percentage in the game. While he shot better from three than he had in UK’s two previous games, the 8-for-17 mark from the field was reminiscent of those early games when he took quick shots and settled for dribble pull ups too often.

Monk is as athletically gifted as any player Calipari has coached here at UK and with that comes playing out of control and too fast at times.

“When his feet move fast, his mind moves fast,” Calipari said. “So I gotta slow down his mind and let him see the game a little differently, and that’s all I’m talking about to him.”

Calipari also would like to see that control and less casual-ness in his jump shot. Monk got in a rhythm in The Garden largely because of the focus that he has been putting on his shot following guidance from the coaching staff. Getting lower and getting more repetition associated with his shot are key to him dropping his streaky reputation, and he showed he can do it as he let it fly against Michigan State.

Monk’s play put UK in the lead, but it was the team’s defense that led to Izzo saying afterwards that his team resembled an AAU team. UK had not lived up to the high expectation that were put on that end of the floor before the season started, but they made great strides against Michigan State.

“Well, I’m actually a little embarrassed,” Izzo said following the loss. “ I felt like we competed defensively for the most part, we just didn’t do anything offensively.”

This Spartans team, even as thin as it is, still had some talent especially in its star freshman Miles Bridges but were completely shut down offensively by the Cats. 

Bridges was able to showcase his athleticism with a few spike-blocks and missed dunks and put-backs, but other than that UK kept him in check limiting him to six points on 2-for-11 shooting with nine turnovers. 

UK’s great defense didn’t just extend to Bridges though, as the Cats didn’t allow a single Michigan State player to get into double-digits in the scoring column and forced 20 Spartan turnovers.

Freshman Wenyen Gabriel played a big part in the defensive performance for UK, coming off the bench to contribute four steals and a block to go along with four points and six rebounds. Through three games, it clear this team will struggle to block shots on  the interior, and it’s for that gritty, effort play like Gabriel showed against Michigan State will be important going forward. 

Between the defense and Monk’s great offensive play, UK is starting to take more of the shape that people expected it to be. The freshman are young and they’ve shown progress so far. And UK currently sits at 3-0 with a quality win over Michigan State without the team not having really fired on all cylinders yet. 

“This is one, the hard work they know now is worth it. Now it’s like, let’s step on the gas,” Calipari said. “Let’s go another level.”