Leave the Driving to Monk

Malik Monk. (Photo by Victoria Graff)

Malik Monk. (Photo by Victoria Graff)

What we saw in the Florida game on Saturday was why Kentucky can’t rely on Malik Monk’s offense to carry it to the promised land.

What we saw in the Florida game on Saturday was how Malik Monk’s offense can indeed carry Kentucky to the promised land.

It was more than just a case of a guy having two different halves. That happens. It was how Kentucky’s offense plays with a wheel off when its mercurial guard is struggling. And Monk was struggling. Forcing bad shots. Missing the shots he took. Fumbling the ball.

Forget driving to the basket. Monk doesn’t do that. De’Aaron Fox does that. But Fox wasn’t in the game.

And with only three points from Monk and no streaking Fox this was a non-dimensional offense. As in 28 first-half points.

But in the second half, Monk showed why he could be one of those – think Kemba Walker, think Buddy Hield, think Carmelo Anthony – who could carry an offense on his shoulders. His shooting streaks are scary. But more than that, he’s nearly unstoppable driving to the basket. Which he did Saturday in the second half. We sometimes forget that Monk was the AAU slam dunk champion, with a whole highlight reel that he brought to Lexington.

And then there’s Bam. There were all kinds of conjectures Sunday morning on why Bam has morphed from seven-rebounds-a-game big man into 15-rebounds-a-game beast. There was something about his diet. And about trying to avoid doing extra running in practice. And about using both hands.

Well, how about this? Lately, he’s been logging 35 minutes instead of 25. He’s been staying on the court instead of dragging his sorry fouls over to the bench.

And, by the way, there’s no doubt that the more he plays – the more any freshman plays – he just learns the game. Bam was always a manchild in a beast’s clothing. He’s just getting beastier.

Both of which could bode well for Kentucky in this upcoming critical time of the year. I say “could,” because Big Blue emotions always sink lower than they need to sink, only to rise higher than warranted. This Kentucky team is still just another lackluster performance away from again disappointing its faithful nation.

There were other turning-point moments in that Florida game.

I’m sure most of you thought, as I did, that the first turning point was seeing Fox in non-combat mufti. What a bad time for Kentucky to miss its roadrunner point guard. The Wildcats seemed lost. Florida jumped off to an 8-0 lead and, later, 18-6. For all the promise of this UK team, the balance of power in the SEC seemed clearly to have swung to Gainesville.

For me, though, the first positive turning point came with the insertion of Dominique Hawkins. Suddenly, the ball moved smartly on the Wildcat end of the court and got trapped when Florida had the ball.

The Kentucky turnovers suddenly came under control and there were fewer aimless dribbles into the paint.

It still wasn’t pretty. But with the Cats playing some inspired defense, drawing fouls on the Gators and hitting their free throws, an 18-6 deficit had suddenly become a game. Two teams with identical 23-5 season records and 13-2 conference records had played to a halftime standoff.

And then Monk hit a couple of free throws, two minutes into the second half, to put UK ahead by one.

Monk too often forces his shots, and they’ve been increasingly, frequently, bad ones. But here’s what he did against Florida when his shots weren’t falling. He began driving to the basket, making layups or getting fouled. Suddenly, Florida coach Mike White couldn’t keep guys on the court.

Thirty second-half points! His 3-ball came alive too. He hit five of seven of those. And 10 of 11 from the line.

But you can’t talk about that Florida game and not talk about Bam. He scored 18, made his free throws and just dominated the boards, a complete reversal of the embarrassment at Florida three weeks ago.

Bam got 15 boards, Derek Willis got nine, Isaiah Briscoe got eight, Hawkins got six. All when it mattered most.

So what if Monk and Bam had 51 of the team’s 76 points? So what if they took 29 of the team’s 53 shots? If that’s the strength of this team, understand it and give in to it.

It’s sort of like the old joke about General Grant’s drinking. When asked about it, President Lincoln said, “Find out what Grant drinks and pass it around to the rest of the generals.” VT