LEXINGTON, Ky. (AP) Sharpshooting Malik Monk chose Kentucky because he felt it was the best place to hone other basketball skills beyond his impressive offensive talents.
Scoring has always come easy for the Wildcats freshman guard, who also wants to become a better rebounder, passer and “lockdown” defender. Even when Monk’s perimeter shots are falling, he wants to share the ball and encourages teammates to shoot to ensure sure he’s not the only one having fun.
“If defenses play me to pass the ball, I’m going to pass it,” Monk said Tuesday. “Coming to Kentucky, you’re surrounded by great players and everybody doesn’t have to focus on you. If the defense focuses on you, somebody else can have a great game and that feels great.”
Still, Monk is the focus of opponents that try to devise ways of containing the sixth-ranked Wildcats’ leading scorer.
The Lepanto, Arkansas native enters Wednesday’s 50th Bluegrass showdown at No. 10 Louisville (10-1) averaging a team-best 21.9 points per game for the Wildcats. If he continues at that pace, he could the highest-scoring college player coach John Calipari has ever had. Dajuan Wagner averaged 21.2 for Calipari at Memphis in 2001-02.
Right now Monk is basking in a higher profile resulting from his 47-point explosion that helped Kentucky beat then-No. 7 North Carolina 103-100 in Las Vegas on Saturday. His point total set a school freshman record and was the Wildcats’ best performance since Jodie Meeks scored 54 at Tennessee in January 2009.
Monk’s 18-of-28 shooting effort included eight 3-pointers, the last of which came with 16.7 seconds remaining to put the Wildcats up for good. His clutch jumper came despite Calipari urging him to drive and symbolized confidence the coach won’t dare stifle.
“There are times they have a better feel than I do,” Calipari said of his talented roster. “You do not have to be perfect, you do not even have to be great. But you’ve got to play.”
Monk knows expectations for a follow-up performance will be high as Kentucky travels 80 miles west for its first true road game. The Cardinals have lost four in a row in the series.
Louisville thrives on its defense and has had success switching defenders in the backcourt. The strategy might suggest slowing down the Wildcats, but coach Rick Pitino said on his radio show Monday night that won’t be the plan for his Cardinals.
However Louisville, or future opponents, try to defend Kentucky, Monk plan is to contribute wherever he can.
“I know they will have some kind of defensive trick for me,” he said of the Cardinals, “but we just have to run through our offense and let the game come to you.”
Monk’s AAU coach, Ron Crawford, wouldn’t be shocked to see his former player passing the ball or rebounding instead of scoring.
“He went to Kentucky to not have to carry the load,” said Crawford, whose Arkansas Wings program also produced former Wildcat guard Archie Goodwin. “He’s consistently getting better on the defensive end and also accepts that he’s not going to shoot on every possession.
“He’s playing with a group where there’s no pressure on him and seems to be in more of a comfort zone.”
Monk is emphatic about improving his rebounding and acknowledges that phase of his game is a work in progress for Kentucky’s backcourt. Circumstances have just created more chances on the boards for the frontcourt, allowing the guards to focus on pushing the ball downcourt and finishing.
While Monk continues working on rounding out his game, he’s savoring how his scoring has helped the Wildcats. Crawford warns of a falloff but knows Monk well enough that a few jumpers could produce another run.
“He’s proven his ability to score 40, just don’t expect it every night,” Crawford notes. “But when his 3-pointer is on, it changes his game.”
It certainly has changed things for Kentucky.
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