John Clay

Big deal in Big Apple: Kentucky flashed championship-level defense

Yeah, we know, Malik Monk lit up the Big Apple, ditched his early slow start by shooting the lights out. And yeah, we know, Isaiah Briscoe put on a show for the home folks, driving to the hoop, making all five of his free throws.

Kentucky mashed Michigan State 69-48 in the opening game of the Champions Classic on Tuesday night at Madison Square Garden because of Monk’s 23 points and Briscoe’s 21 as part of a brilliant offensive explosion, right?

“Hey, we shot 38 percent now,” John Calipari said afterward, squinting at the less-than-stellar number on the final stat sheet.

In fact, Kentucky smacked the Spartans in the Garden because of what happened at the opposite end of the floor.

“We played some crazy defense tonight,” Briscoe said afterward.

Maybe not great defense — Calipari wasn’t willing to go that far this early in the 2016-17 campaign — but certainly tough enough defense to hold State to 32.8 percent shooting and to give the Big Blue Nation a few goose bumps about what might happen down the road with this young, athletic, selfless group.

“We’ve got a long way to go,” Calipari said by way of a disclaimer.

It was Michigan State that had already gone a long way, first crossing the ocean to Hawaii for a 65-63 loss to Arizona in last Friday’s Armed Forces Classic. Then the Spartans came all the way back to the opposite end of the country, arriving in New York for the annual gathering of four of hoops’ biggest brand names.

“We looked like an AAU team; just went one-on-one, didn’t move the ball, got frustrated,” was Michigan State Coach Tom Izzo’s post-game assessment. “I think some of it was that we were a little fatigued and I think John did a hell of a job. I do think that is one of his better defensive teams.”

After UK’s easy romps over Stephen F. Austin and Canisius, perimeter shooting and rebounding were the early-season concerns. After all, the Cats made just nine of 34 shots from beyond the arc. They were a minus-eight in the total rebounds column, a stat totally out of a character for a Calipari club.

Those aspects will improve and did so at least a tad on Tuesday. Monk hit seven of 11 threes while his teammates were 0-for-10. More work to be done there. On the glass, Michigan State’s “midgets” (Izzo’s term) outrebounded the Cats 44-40. Shouldn’t happen, Calipari complained. Izzo agreed.

For this Kentucky team to make it happen in March, however, it has to reach its ceiling on defense. And it’s a high ceiling; very high. Calipari has said he’ll be disappointed if by February this isn’t the best defensive team in the country.

“They’re just athletic and long,” Izzo said. “They’re long at every position, starting from the point.”

The Hall of Fame coach also said this: “That’s probably the most athletic team we’ll play all year.”

That’s good news for Miles Bridges, Michigan State’s star freshman, who suffered through a long nightmare on a big stage. Bridges did grab 12 rebounds, but he made just two of 11 shots and turned the ball over nine times — all by himself.

“They were loading up on him,” Izzo said. “Give John credit, they did hell of a job defensively every time he touched it.”

So yeah, give Monk all the accolades for scorching the nets, and give New Jersey native Briscoe props for the happy homecoming that was a 21-point win over a team ranked 13th in the country. The real news out of this Champions Classic, the thing that might lead you to think this Kentucky team is indeed championship caliber, was its defense.

Next game

Duquesne at No. 2 Kentucky

9 p.m. Sunday (ESPN)

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