Of course, Kentucky freshman Malik Monk leads all Southeastern Conference players in scoring. He’s averaging 22.5 points.
The league’s No. 2 scorer might be a surprise. It’s Georgia forward Yante Maten, who had gone, if not under the radar, then largely uncelebrated as a consistently productive player.
“Most underrated player in our league,” Mississippi State Coach Ben Howland said of Maten. “By far.
“I don’t get it,” Howland added. “I think Maten is terrific.”
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Georgia Coach Mark Fox suggested that Maten’s playing style, which could be called understated, contributed to his relatively low profile.
“He just quietly does his job,” Fox said. “Maybe we should do a better job promoting him because he’s been a very good player for us.”
Besides being the SEC’s No. 2 scorer, Maten ranks third in rebounding (7.7 per game) and shooting accuracy (53.6 percent).
Howland, who touted Maten at the SEC Media Day, did not need convincing.
“Somebody told me the other day they had a top 20 NBA prospects from the SEC and he’s not on the list,” Howland said. “That’s a joke. If I could have any one player returning from another team in our league, that’s who I want.”
It’s not as if Maten does not have a gripping human interest story to give poignancy to a promotional campaign. On a rainy night in January of his freshman season, he was hit by a car while walking on the Georgia campus. He gashed his head and sustained a concussion.
Then there is the herpetology program Georgia could offer. It made the difference in how Georgia beat Michigan State and Indiana for Maten. Herpetology is the study of reptiles and amphibians. Georgia lists Maten’s major as “Fisheries & Wildlife.”
UK Coach John Calipari did not need to be reminded who Maten is and how effective he can be.
“Maten’s hurt us over the years simply by being physical,” Calipari said. “So it’s a tough matchup for us.”
In two games in Rupp Arena, Maten has averaged a double-double: 14.5 points and 10 rebounds.
Senior guard J.J. Frazier combines with Maten to give Georgia an inside-outside combination.
For those who can’t resist the lure of recruiting, Frazier and Maten combined to have five stars. Maten was a three-star prospect from Bloomfield Hills, Mich. Frazier was a two-star player from Glennville, Ga.
“I might have had no stars actually,” Frazier joked at SEC Media Day in October. “I don’t really know.”
Despite the two stars, Frazier is a career 35.3-percent three-point shooter (only 27.3 percent this season). He ranks second among SEC players in steals and first in free-throw shooting (89.2 percent).
“I never put any stock in that,” he said of the recruiting world’s star system for grading prospects. “I knew who I was, and I know what type of player I was. I just didn’t have the body or stature to get noticed. That was OK with me.”
Fox downplayed the importance of how many stars are in a prospect’s label.
“I never consider that,” he said. “We just make our own evaluation.”
What did Fox see in Frazier? “He had a huge competitive heart and a good (shooting) stroke,” the Georgia coach said. “And a really high IQ for the game.”
Calipari said he asked his freshmen, presumably beginning with De’Aaron Fox and Malik Monk, if they had hit the metaphorical wall.
Fox had a season-high five turnovers against Kansas. In the last two games, Monk has made only 13 of 32 shots (five of 19 from three-point range).
“Nah,” Calipari said the freshmen answered. “Absolutely not.”
John Cailpari will not be the only coach in Rupp Arena hoping his team improves defensively.
In league play, Georgia ranks second in opponents’ shooting (40 percent) and three-point shooting (30.6 percent).
“I don’t think we defend to the consistent level that our program has,” Fox said. “We’ve been a really consistent defensive team, and consistent rebounding team. I don’t think we’ve been as good as those previous teams at times.”
Georgia is catching a Kentucky team that has lost its last two games. The last time UK lost three straight games was in the 2008-09 season. Billy Gillispie’s last UK team lost the final four games of the regular season.
Fox recoiled from the idea of playing Kentucky at a good time.
“It’s never easy going to Rupp,” he said. “Se we haven’t really talked about it. It’s never easy playing Kentucky because they’re always so good.”
Brent Musburger, Jay Bilas and sideline reporter Kaylee Hartung will call the game for ESPN.