It’s Not Funny!

Freshman Malik Monk drives towards the basket. (Photo by Victoria Graff)

Freshman Malik Monk drives towards the basket. (Photo by Victoria Graff)

There was a moment, near the end of the debacle in Gainesville, when the camera caught the Kentucky starters sitting on the bench, their activities through for the night.

Malik Monk was smiling and laughing about something. And then he got the attention of De’Aaron Fox, and there seemed to be a glimmer of mirth in Fox’s eyes.

My first reaction was, “How inappropriate! You guys have just failed a very important SEC test. You’ve lost two of three, barely eked out the one you won and have just been humiliated by your conference’s biggest opponent, before a national TV audience.”

And then I wondered if, in fact, that was a behavior to overlook. Young kids like this perhaps shake off losses, even one-sided beatdowns, because there’s always another game and they assume they’ll be fine. Maybe they don’t put the noose around their necks and threaten to kick out the stool after a game like this, the way most of Big Blue Nation does. Maybe their confidence is such that this is really no biggie in their ongoing faith in their sublime abilities.

I hope so, because this team needs something. Fast.

To say “don’t panic” is absolutely right. It’s too good a team for panic, and there’s plenty of season left. But that’s not the same as saying, “it’s just one game.” That would be absolutely wrong. It’s not just one game, it’s four. Something definitely is lacking.

It’s impossible to figure out who and what this team is. Is it a fast break offense constantly attacking in transition? Is it a post-up offense in the half court?

Is it an offense built entirely on freeing up Monk, snapping passes side to side, in and out, making defenses commit and spin the wrong way? Or is it Isaiah Briscoe dribbling all around the court, inside, outside and along the baseline while everyone else seems to come to a halt?

If it’s that side-to-side, in-and-out offense, it’s not working. The ball does not move rapidly, there are too many ill-advised long shots and difficult shots early in the clock, and Monk – good or bad, swishing or clanking – is often shooting off-balance, falling back, with hands in his face.

And if it’s the transition offense, Kentucky better figure out how to get stops and, perhaps more important, defensive rebounds. You can’t get a fast break off a made basket. (Well, actually, you can – Fox can. But then all you’re doing is trading two for two, so it would be good to be up 10 at that point, not down 10.)

John Calipari said it exactly right. Too many “cute” shots and passes. Too many alley-oops and no-looks and ill-advised cross-court passes. Too many drives to nowhere.

Calipari yo-yos Wenyan Gabriel and Derek Willis in and out of games, but why? For what? What’s the difference? What is either one’s role in the scheme of things? When the ball goes inside to Bam Adebayo, is Gabriel supposed to rotate in and take advantage of the double team that ensues on Bam? When the ball goes to Monk in the corner, is Willis supposed to set in the other corner or along the perimeter and wait for the defense to overcommit as the ball then comes whipping back his way for an open three?

I kind of wonder because that rarely happens. Willis too often doesn’t get the ball when he’s open and too often doesn’t shoot the ball when he gets it. His inside play should be much stronger than it is, too. He’s 6-foot-9 and athletic.

When Fox or Briscoe drives the lane, it’s great if they’re making that shot. And they used to. Briscoe used to be a magician at getting inside and banking or rolling it in. Now, it seems, he just throws it up – hoping for what? A foul maybe? A divine bounce?

Fox is simply amazing at driving the ball. Among my favorite moments of the year was when he turned Lonzo Ball inside out and around on a drive to the basket, exposing and embarrassing UCLA’s super-frosh. Of course, Ball eventually did the embarrassing and exposing in that game.

Going back to the Monk-on-the-bench incident, I remembered another such moment a month or two ago. Cal was drilling the team during a timeout and Gabriel seemed to be arguing some case or another. Monk glared him down, as if to say, “shut up, don’t argue, Coach is talking.”

That was a locked-in, intense, eager-to-learn Monk. Kentucky needs his intensity back.

Or something. VT