Coming in to tonight, I don’t think many of us expected Kentucky to beat Michigan State by 21 points, but that’s exactly what the Cats did, knocking off the #13 Spartans 69-48 in Madison Square Garden in the Champions Classic. Malik Monk, Isaiah Briscoe, and De’Aaron Fox combined for 56 of Kentucky’s 69 points, and the Cats turned in by far their most impressive defensive performance of the season.
College basketball fans may have tuned in to see Duke, but it was Kentucky that made the statement that the nation needs to sit up and take notice. Let’s break it down.
1. Malik Monk made seven threes
One of the biggest knocks on Kentucky so far has been their lack of perimeter shooting, with the Cats only hitting 9-34 (26.5%) from behind the arc before tonight. Malik Monk must have taken that criticism to heart, because he came out and made seven of eleven threes on the way to a game-high 23 points. For some reason, people forget about Malik when they question the Cats’ outside scoring (doesn’t anyone remember that he won the McDonald’s All-American 3-point contest?), but they won’t after tonight. With tonight’s performance, Monk became the third freshmen in Kentucky basketball history to make at least seven threes in a regular season game, joining Doron Lamb and Jamal Murray.
“He had an unbelievable shootaround today,” Calipari said of Monk. “Malik Monk had one of the best shootarounds that any of my players have had in the past few years and I expected he would go in and go play well.”
Now, hopefully the rest of the Cats can follow his lead. Monk was the only Kentucky player to hit a three, with the rest of the team going 0-10.
2. The defense was spectacular
Before tonight, Calipari ragged on his team for their lack of effort on the defensive end, but with the bright lights of Madison Square Garden on them, the Cats came alive, holding Michigan State to 48 points and 32.8% shooting (19.2% from 3-point land). No Michigan State player scored in double-figures and the Spartans committed 20 turnovers. For any team, Kentucky’s defensive performance was good; for a team this young this early on, that’s REALLY good. A lot of the credit has to go to Isaiah Briscoe, who embraced the role of lockdown defender.
“The more comfortable we get with each other, the more we talk on defense, the better we are on defense,” Briscoe said. “We were crazy on defense today.”
Tom Izzo was full of praise for Kentucky, which he said made his team look like an AAU squad.
“I think this is one of John’s best defensive teams,” Izzo said. “They’re just athletic and long. We’re a midget crew and they’re a long crew.”
3. Miles Bridges only scored six points
Remember how concerned we were about Miles Bridges? The freshman phenom finished with only six points and NINE turnovers to go along with 12 rebounds. Bridges is good, but tonight, Kentucky had his number, which left him doubled over in emotion on the sidelines afterwards.
“I said, ‘Miles, welcome to the real world,'” Izzo said of his message to Bridges, crediting Calipari for an effective game plan to shut the freshman down. “Miles was embarrassed tonight. Those were his words.”
4. Isaiah Briscoe is playing exactly how Kentucky needs him to right now
Briscoe made the best of his homecoming to the Big Apple, following up his career-high 21-point game vs. Canisius with 21 points and 5 rebounds. Briscoe did the things we’ve all come to expect from him, like defend and bully his way to the rim, but he’s also doing things like making the extra pass and hitting his free throws, making all five he attempted tonight. Through three games, it’s very clear that he’s just a different player than last year.
“I feel more comfortable out on the court and I just know how to play the game better,” Briscoe said. “Getting easy buckets, when I’m tired subbing myself out, making the right plays, not using as much energy, that all comes with being experienced.”
“You see his toughness,” Calipari said. “He’s on the path we want him on.”
“Just a tough, gritty kid,” Izzo said. “You gotta love that kid.”
Yes, you do.
5. Kentucky is a different team without De’Aaron Fox on the floor
Fox picked up his second foul with five and a half minutes left in the first half, with Kentucky up 26-14 after their first big run. In those remaining five and a half minutes, Michigan State went on a run and recaptured some momentum, but with Fox back to start the second half, Kentucky was able to put its foot back on the gas.
Calipari was pleased with Fox, who finished with 12 points and six assists, but was furious with him when he threw the ball to Bam Adebayo in traffic late in the game, leading to Bam’s fourth foul.
“I got on him the last play he threw to Bam for no reason,” Cal said on his radio show. “You cannot give those guys the ball when they’re running into traffic. They can’t make that play, so he got Bam his fourth [foul].”
Another trend to keep an eye on? Fox was 6-6 from the free throw line tonight, bringing his season total from the charity stripe to 21-21.
6. How about Wenyen Gabriel?
Gabriel didn’t start, but infused Kentucky with energy during his 24 minutes, finishing with four points, three steals, two assists and one block. That may not sound like a lot, but Gabriel made an impact, and if his three point attempt had stayed in the rim instead of spinning back out, he’d be a much bigger storyline. I said it over the weekend, but everyone talks about the big three freshmen and Briscoe, but Wenyen’s been the most pleasant surprise to me so far this year. In what may be a telling sign, Derek Willis started, but only played 16 minutes. Wenyen played 24.
7. Bam just keeps fouling
Just as Bam was hitting his stride and allowing the commentators to tell viewers how he got his nickname (Bam watching the Flintstones is the new Willie played football), he picked up his second foul and spent the rest of the first half on the bench. Same thing pretty much in the second. You can tell Bam and Calipari are frustrated by the fouls, with Calipari lamenting that Bam can’t move without getting whistled.
8. What does tonight mean?
It’s early, but a 21-point win over the #13 team in the country is impressive no matter who you ask. From the pregame anticipation to the thrill of the Cats beating down an elite opponent in the national spotlight, it just feels like good times are here again for Kentucky basketball. While tonight’s win doesn’t rank up there with the 2014-15 Kansas beatdown in the Champions Classic, there were some moments where I sat there grinning at my television like an idiot. There’s work to do — Malik Monk isn’t going to hit seven threes every night — but as Calipari said, with the lights on, this team rose to the challenge, which is enough to make you ache for March.
“This shows what we’re capable of. Now we’ve got to build on this,” Cal said. “Step on the gas, go to another level.”