With plenty of good news and a spot of bad news in recent days, Kentucky freshman Malik Monk mixed gratitude with a sobering message for opponents.
Monk expressed thanks for the avalanche of awards he received Monday and Tuesday. Among them were Southeastern Conference Player of the Year and Newcomer of the Year (media vote conducted by The Associated Press), freshman All-American (The Sporting News), all-SEC first team (league coaches) and District IV Player of the Year (United States Basketball Writers Association).
“I really can’t feel no kind of way but be happy,” Monk said Tuesday, “and be blessed that God put me in the situation. Just listening to Coach (John Calipari) put me in that situation, too. So I’m just blessed to be here.”
A moment later, Monk acknowledged that his 2-for-10 shooting and six-point performance at Texas A&M on Saturday was “just horrible.” That was the first game all season he did not score 10 or more points.
Monk suggested that opponents in the SEC Tournament later this week and then the upcoming NCAA Tournament should take no comfort in his off game or Kentucky’s inconsistent play this season.
“It’s bad news for every team coming up,” Monk said, “because I think our team is focused. We’re coming in focused from the jump. So I think it’s going to be a new team the whole tournament.”
Even with the game at Texas A&M, Monk is on pace to become the first freshman to lead the SEC in scoring since Chris Jackson of LSU in 1988-89. He credited Calipari.
Going into the SEC Tournament, Monk leads Sindarius Thornwell of South Carolina by one-thousandth of a point in the scoring race. Monk is averaging 21.161 points. Thornwell 21.160 points.
“Cal set me up well,” Monk said. “He gives me the ball as much as I want. I’m just trying to execute off that because I’m getting the ball.”
Monk was not the only person voted SEC Player of the Year. He won the media vote. Thornwell won the vote of the league coaches.
When asked who was better, Monk said, “I’m not going to say nobody’s better than me. I’m going to say I’m the best. He’s a great player.”
Monk became the fourth Wildcat to be named SEC Player of the Year in Calipari’s eight seasons as coach. He followed Tyler Ulis (2016), Anthony Davis (2012) and John Wall (2010).
Overall, Monk is the 15th UK player so honored by The Associated Press, which began its award in 1965.
On the SEC coaches teleconference Monday, Calipari lauded how Monk has become more than a perimeter shooter.
“He has become an efficient scorer,” Calipari said, “which I hoped he’d become. Yet, he can score in bunches. And when he gets in a zone, you’ve just got to let him go and put him in spaces where he can get shots off.”
Monk’s ability to suddenly drench opponents in points caught Vanderbilt Coach Bryce Drew’s attention.
“When we played him, I thought we did a decent job on him,” Drew said. “And you look up and see his numbers, and you’re like, we couldn’t have done that decent of a job on him. He just makes it look very easy the way he scores the ball.”
Florida Coach Mike White, who incidentally was voted SEC Coach of the Year, lauded Monk’s versatility as a scorer. Elite shooter. Elite athlete. Knows how to use screens. Moves without the ball.
“He’s arguably the hardest guy in college basketball to defend,” White said.
Monk’s description of his season to date could fit the Kentucky team as well.
“I feel like the overall year was pretty good,” he said. “I had some ups and downs. I think I could have done better. But a new season is here. It’s tournament time, so I need to focus in even more.”
Monk accepted the premise that UK’s pattern of falling behind early in games could be likened to skating on the edge, thus requiring greater attention to detail.
“For sure,” he said. “SEC Tournament and (NCAA) tournament time, you always have to tighten stuff. Cal told me if we’re down 15-2 … in the SEC Tournament or NCAA Tournament, we’re not coming back.”
Monk acknowledged his own inconsistencies. In UK’s last seven games, he made 39 of 105 shots (37.1 percent).
Of course, opponents are more keenly aware of Monk’s ability to be a difference-maker, so he draws special defensive attention.
“They’re sending two (defenders) at me every time,” he said. “But they’re sending two at Bam (Adebayo) every time. We’re both getting annoyed with that.”
Monk has had to balance being an X factor, a player who UK coaches said has the greenest light on the team, with being aware of time-and-score considerations.
“I think being patient is the biggest key,” Monk said.
Several times in speaking with reporters for about 10 minutes, Monk mentioned the word “focus” as an important element. He cited his poor preparation in some practices, shooting what he called “lazy layups” rather than “game shots.” The latter meant practicing the shots that he’d take in games.
Monk all but assured reporters that he’d learned this lesson.
“I’m way more focused,’ he said. “My focus is 10 times better than the focus coming into the season. Yes, sir.”
When: Wednesday through Sunday
Where: Bridgestone Arena in Nashville
UK’s first game: 1 p.m. (EST) Friday vs. Tennessee or Georgia
TV: SEC Network