<
>

Malik Monk proves he's ready to carry Kentucky

play
Monk: 'I knew I was gonna make it' (1:15)

Malik Monk speaks with Shelley Smith about his 47-point performance and game-winning shot against North Carolina. (1:15)

There were concerns entering the season about whether Kentucky coach John Calipari had a go-to guy, someone who could take over a game, a bona fide star within this talented group.

Malik Monk answered that with an exclamation point on Saturday when he exploded for 47 points and knocked down 8 of 12 3-pointers -- something that Buddy Hield, Doug McDermott and Kevin Durant were never able to accomplish in their storied college careers.

Texas' Durant went for 37 on four separate occasions in his lone season in Austin back in 2006-07. Hield put up 46 in January against Kansas, and McDermott had 45 against Providence on senior night in 2014.

This performance came in just the 11th game of Monk's career, under the bright lights in Las Vegas, against a North Carolina team that many feel is a legitimate national-title contender.

No one was sure who it would be in Lexington. Bam Adebayo? De'Aaron Fox? Monk? Even maybe Isaiah Briscoe? It was unclear who would carry this young batch of Cats.

It'll be Monk.

The 6-foot-3 freshman was an enigma at times on the AAU circuit. He'd go for 40 one game, then go through the motions and finish with four points the next. Former Florida coach Billy Donovan said he thought Monk was the best player in the Class of 2016, but numerous other coaches -- who caught him on the wrong day -- maintained he was vastly overrated because he lacked the fire to be great. As it turns out, Monk just needed a coach to push him, to make certain he came to play every single game and not look as though he were bored on occasion.

John Calipari was the answer.

At the end, the pride of Lepanto, Arkansas, chose to play in Lexington, spurning Mike Anderson and the home-state Razorbacks. It's difficult to argue with that decision after watching him explode in the 103-100 victory over North Carolina.

Calipari has gotten Monk to play with intensity and consistent effort each and every time out. That's one of Calipari's greatest attributes -- and Monk is the latest to respond. He has scored in double figures in all 11 of his college games thus far, but none of the previous 10 came close to what went down on Saturday in Las Vegas.

It might go down as the single greatest individual showing of the season -- and yes, I am well aware it's only Dec. 17.

But this doesn't happen often. The only Kentucky player in the past two decades to surpass 47 was Jodie Meeks' 54 back on Jan. 13, 2009. It was also the most points by an SEC freshman in the past 20 years. Monk tied Dan Issel for the sixth-most points in a game by a UK player. Issel did it in 1970. Monk also became the only player in the Calipari era to score more than 40 in a game.

Monk put on one of the most scintillating offensive displays college basketball has seen in a while. As good as he was back in mid-November when he hit 7 of 11 3s at Madison Square Garden in a convincing win over Michigan State, that was just an appetizer. This was like watching Hield from a year ago, McDermott his senior season at Creighton or even Durant in his lone season in Austin. Monk was raining 3s from all over the court and did it with efficiency. He was 18-of-28 from the field. There weren't many forced shots, and UNC defenders took turns -- without much success -- trying to slow him down.

Monk and his freshman backcourt mate, Fox, were sensational and carried the Cats to a win that answered any questions that might have lingered after the home loss to UCLA a few weeks ago. Sure, this remains a Kentucky team that can be perimeter-shot-challenged at times. Briscoe is a subpar shooter from deep. The same can be said for Fox.

Kentucky needs Monk to make shots.

Calipari is still imploring Monk to drive to the basket because, frankly, he can get there almost whenever he wants. He has a rare combination of skill and athleticism where he can drill 3s and also get what he wants when he drives to the hoop.

But NBA executives are torn on Monk.

Some say he's a lock to go in the upper half of the NBA lottery. One even recently told me he'd select Monk with the No. 1 overall pick. But others are concerned about a 2-guard who is 6 feet 3, and they say he'll go in the bottom portion of the lottery because of his lack of size.

Calipari will continue to push Monk to be more aggressive driving to the basket and will beg him to defend with more urgency.

But Calipari has found his superstar on this team. And college basketball has found one, too.