The way De’Aaron Fox and Malik Monk led Kentucky to a 101-70 rout of Cleveland State on Wednesday inspired a postgame question: Greatest freshman backcourt duo in a John Calipari era flush with great first-year players?
Calipari offered the John Wall-Eric Bledsoe combination of 2009-10 as a reason to hit the pause button.
“Cal loved them so much,” the ever-playful Monk said. “He’ll see later.”
What Calipari and the Big Blue Nation saw against Cleveland State surely inspired infatuation, if not till-death-do-us-part devotion.
Fox, the latest in Calipari’s long line of stellar point guards, had 16 points and 11 assists. That marked his second double-double in a season that’s only five games old.
Monk led UK with 23 points. He made four of six three-point shots, which increased his season total to 16, which is believed to be the most by any UK player after five games.
When asked to appraise the Fox-Monk combination, Cleveland State Coach Gary Waters got right to the point. “Well, if the NBA had different rules, they would probably be there right now,” he said.
With Fox and Monk leading the way, UK pasted Cleveland State the day before fans could baste turkeys.
Kentucky scored the game’s first seven points, led by 22 with almost eight minutes left in the first half and cruised from there.
The Cats became the first Kentucky team since the Fabulous Five (1947-48) to open a season with five victories by 21 or more points. UK did not miss a beat despite being without sophomore leader Isaiah Briscoe. He sat out the game because of what UK called a back injury. UK listed Briscoe’s status as day-to-day.
With Briscoe sidelined, Kentucky’s dependence on Fox increased. Several times this fall, Calipari had said that he wanted Briscoe and/or Fox on the court at all times.
Fox played 18 minutes in the first half. He scored 12 points, got credit for six assists before halftime and breathed life in Calipari’s words of praise the previous day.
“There are things he does that I can’t teach,” the UK coach said of Fox. “He’s special.”
That seemed never more true than on two plays in the first half, each showcasing a noticeable chemistry the two freshmen enjoy.
On the first, Fox rose high to dunk a lob that Monk threw off the glass.
On the second, Fox threaded the needle on a 40-foot pass that found Monk in stride on the fast break.
“I wouldn’t say the chemistry is bad (with other teammates),” Fox said. “I’d say my chemistry with Malik is just way up there (he held his right hand above his head). ... I feel I know what Malik is going to do like the back of my hand.”
Monk called the chemistry he has with Fox “crazy,” and pointed out the two did not play together much on the AAU circuit.
When told that Fox had said the two played against each other in a game, Monk smiled and said, ‘He didn’t tell you I had 30 that game.’”
Fox guarded Monk that game. “Ask him about that,” Monk said.
Fox had a retort. “My team won by 20,” he said. “I don’t know if he’ll remember that.”
For Cleveland State (1-3) falling behind by a lot early in a game was nothing new. The Vikings trailed 50-23 at halftime against Tennessee-Martin last Friday before closing within four points late in the second half.
“They keep fighting,” Waters said of his team’s competitive spirit. “There’s no quit in them.”
But Kentucky (5-0) did not allow Cleveland State’s competitiveness to show itself.
Again and again, either Monk or Fox or a collaboration of the two kept Cleveland State at a distance in UK’s rearview mirror.
Tennessee-Martin at No. 1 Kentucky
7 p.m. Friday (SEC Network)