A game against his home-state school, Arkansas, figures to excite star Kentucky freshman Malik Monk. He and the Cats hope he doesn’t get too excited.
“Yeah, that’s a big thing, too,” Monk said after UK beat Texas A&M on Tuesday. “I just have to keep my mind focused on the game, and not get off on the other stuff.”
At Friday’s day-before-the-game news conference, UK Coach John Calipari acknowledged that Monk would need to stay emotionally grounded. Monk, who played his last three high school seasons for a school only 26 miles from the Arkansas campus, chose to play for Kentucky. The decision caused a firestorm of negative feedback.
“He and I haven’t talked about it,” Calipari said. “But when he gets too hyped, he’s not at his best. When he gets too hyped, he doesn’t shoot as well. Mind starts racing a little bit. He’s not the calm, athletic attack player that he needs to be. . . .
“He and I will talk about it before the game.”
Arkansas Coach Mike Anderson anticipated emotions playing a part in the game Saturday in Rupp Arena.
“Malik knows every guy on our team, or, for the most part, every guy on our team,” Anderson said Thursday. “He used to play with them in the summers growing up here. So I am sure he’s going to be charged up to play and get his guys to play. There is going to be a lot of emotions involved in it.”
Monk came to Kentucky with the reputation as an excellent, though inconsistent player. In the preseason, he suggested that was, in part, attributable to the caliber of opponent.
“Sometimes I’m different,” he said. “Some games I’m more excited than other games.”
When asked what games got him more excited, Monk said, “Humongous games. The biggest games, huge games, I love them.”
Monk said he loved the big game because “it’ll show you who the best player is. Show you how much talent you have.”
Monk, who leads Kentucky (and all freshmen in the country) with a scoring average of 22.6 points, has seemingly been a model of consistency this season. He’s scored double-digit points in every game. He leads the Cats in free-throw accuracy (for players taking more than four free throws) and three-point accuracy (taking more than one shot).
But Calipari amended the logical conclusion that these numbers reflect consistency.
“He’s efficient more than consistent,” the UK coach said. Calipari pointed out that Monk took only 11 shots in scoring 26 points against Texas A&M earlier this week.
“That’s big for your team,” Calipari said. “Then everybody else can shoot.”
Calipari suggested that not enough attention has been paid to Monk’s play at the other end of the court.
“The best thing he’s done is transform himself into a defensive guard more so than he’s ever been,” the UK coach said.
As he has several times earlier this season, Calipari again called on Monk to become more diligent in blocking out and grab more rebounds.
“My opinion, he should be a double-double . . . ,” Calipari said. “It should be rebounds and points. He can be that guy, but he’s got to focus on that.”
No doubt, Calipari’s call for more rebounds sounded familiar to Monk.
When asked after the Texas A&M game how often Calipari calls for more rebounds, Monk smiled and said, “Every day. Every day. Every day. Every day.
“I don’t know why I’m not rebounding. Probably just trying to get out to score the ball.”
To be a better rebounder, at least on the defensive end, Monk must decide when to go to the glass and when to spring out on the fast break.
“It’s hard to decide,” he said. “That’s me just learning (and) getting older as a player.”
Arkansas’ style of play figures to heighten emotions. The Razorbacks typically attack defensively, using different tactics to force an opponent to be less reliant on practice habits.
“I think that plays to our advantage,” Wenyen Gabriel said. “If they want to play fast, let them.”
Calipari said much the same thing.
“If you press and trap, we’re coming,” he said. “That’s how we play.”
Arkansas at No. 6 Kentucky
When: 8:30 p.m.
Radio: WLAP-AM 630, WBUL-FM 98.1
Records: Arkansas 12-2 (1-1 SEC), Kentucky 12-2 (2-0)
Series: Kentucky leads 28-11
Last meeting: Kentucky won 80-66 on Jan. 21, 2016, at Fayetteville, Ark.