If there is a rivalry that everyone in the SEC looks forward to each year, it is Kentucky-Florida. These two are the only real consistent threats each year to battle for an SEC championship trophy. Granted, Florida did have a down year last year in Mike White’s first go-around, but he has gotten Florida basketball back on track with their No. 24 ranking. Since John Calipari left Memphis to walk the sidelines of Rupp Arena, Florida and Kentucky have combined to make nine combined SEC tournament appearances. Since 1994, the SEC has won six national championship trophies. Kentucky and Florida have combined to win five of those trophies with Kentucky holding the lead 3-2. Billy Donovan may have left, but Florida still has to be Kentucky’s biggest rival year-in and year-out with the amount of meaningful and exciting games they have given us over the past couple years. From Billy Donovan’s group of seniors beating Kentucky three consecutive times and by one-point in the SEC championship game, to Florida nearly handing the Cats that went 38-1 their first loss in the swamp. Devin Robinson remembers that game vividly, just ask Willie Cauley-Stein. But, these two teams have given us many memorable moments that gives us the slightest bit of hope that SEC basketball will ascend to their level and create for better league play. Kentucky showed their youth losing in blowout fashion by 22 to Florida on Saturday as Florida, more on that game in the next edition…
Player of the Week
Malik Monk (Kentucky)
John Calipari post-game has been known to make players thank others in victories where they made a critical mistake, but one of their teammates saved the day. Every player on the Kentucky roster with the exception of Isaiah Briscoe was most likely forced to walk over to Monk and thank him for his late game heroics. Kentucky looked flat-out awful for the first ten minutes of game time. Georgia jumped out to a 12-0 lead and Kentucky looked completely lost without their floor general De'Aaron Fox. It seemed as if it was time to push the panic button on Kentucky basketball after consecutive losses and what looked like what could be the first possible three game losing streak under Coach Cal at Kentucky. Isaiah Briscoe looked like the only Kentucky player who knew there was a game going on. Malik Monk only scored 6 points in the first half of play. I don’t know what Coach Cal or Kenny Payne said at halftime, but Monk went out and got buckets. Contested three after contested three just seemed to find the bottom of the net as Monk shot 7-11 from deep for the whole game. Each shot he sunk was not to pad his stats, every point was needed and him and Briscoe put on a clinic that kept the Cats in the game. Briscoe neared a triple-double, but Monk earned the player of the week honor because he made critical plays down the stretch and in OT that won his team the game. Kentucky would have come out on the losing end if not for a game-tying contested jumper just inside the arc with less than 10 seconds left on the clock. In OT Monk continued to ball and refused to come out of that game with a third consecutive loss. He hit two more treys and had the game-clinching assist on a lob to Bam Adebayo that put Rupp Arena in a frenzy. De’Aaron Fox’s absence had Kentucky scrambling for answers, but Monk resorting to Kobe Ball kept Kentucky tied for first in the SEC. Maybe Cal even thanked Malik in the locker room after.
The SEC standings look like a four-team race between Kentucky, South Carolina, Florida, and maybe Arkansas. But, Tennessee has fought their way into the top half of the league by reeling off four consecutive victories. When you look back on a season, there is always one game that is a season-changing victory and the one over what was a No. 4 Kentucky squad looks like it could do the trick. I think the emergence of Grant Williams has launched Tennessee into a consistent threat. Rick Barnes knew what he was getting out of Robert Hubbs III, but outside of that there was no other player who could put together consecutive performances to get the team on track. The Volunteers sit at 13-9 and have a very slim chance to make the tournament unless they keep up this winning streak or pull off some magic in the SEC tournament. This is a young team that could have a positive outing one day, then have a performance where you’re scratching your head. Recently, this team has looked impressive and seem to have it figured out. Who knows, maybe a go-to player like what Grant Williams has become can give them an opportunity to battle for a bubble spot come tournament time.
Yes, Malik Monk was my player of the week, but he shouldn’t of had to have a performance like that to squeeze out a win against an inferior Georgia team. Kentucky was short-handed with De’Aaron Fox and Mychal Mulder coming down with the flu, but that is no excuse for an otherworldly performance by Malik Monk being the only reason you scrape out a victory at home. Coming off two consecutive losses to Tennessee on the road and Kansas at home, you would think a team would play with more intensity and come out with a different mentality. The Cats gave up 12 points to the Bulldogs before scoring their first point at Rupp Arena. John Calipari had 4 losses at home during his entire tenure with Kentucky coming into the season and has already had half that this season. It was virtually impossible to come into Rupp and beat a ranked Kentucky team, but as of late these Cats lack toughness and look useless on the defensive end of the floor. If I see a trip to Lexington coming up soon on the schedule I would be looking at it as a possible, resume-building win. Where before, most teams would circle that date and put an L through the middle of it. The mentality of the team needs to change and they need to focus on the defensive end where guards are constantly getting to the paint. Kentucky may be second in the country in points per game, but come tournament time you can’t out-score everyone. Every national champion finished within the top-20 for efficiency on both sides of the ball; the way Cal’s Cats have looked it may be another early exit this year.
Top 5 SEC NBA Prospects
1. De'Aaron Fox (Kentucky)
Despite all the hype about Malik Monk being the most exciting player in the country, De’Aaron Fox leads the SEC in assists and his game and size for his position transitions to the NBA better. Fox is the fastest player on the court at all times and it weren’t for his lack of success from deep (7-41), we would potentially be putting him in the same conversation as Lonzo Ball and Markelle Fultz.
2. Malik Monk (Kentucky)
De’Aaron Fox has no outside game, but on the other hand Malik Monk goes through periods of time where he cannot miss from three. He is the best scorer in this draft, but his lack of size for his position is the only thing holding him back. Monk can hit a three in your eye, but also dunk on you. It’s just that the average size for his position is 6’5, where Monk stands 6’3.
3. Robert Williams (Texas A&M)
Robert Williams is a diamond in the rough when referring to the team he has around him. Don’t get me wrong, there is talent but he stands alone when referring to players who could make an impact in the NBA next year. His stats aren’t the typical stats you would see from a potential lottery pick but the potential he shows on the defensive side of the ball is remarkable with his 7’4 wingspan.
4. Bam Adebayo (Kentucky)
Bam’s draft stock has fallen due to the play of Kentucky’s backcourt, and it is not because he just isn’t good enough, it’s because Monk and Fox are so dominant with the ball in their hands. There have been games where Bam has got the touches he deserved such as a game against Louisville and he dominated. He has shown the ability to knock down mid-range jumpshots, but his transition to the NBA looks like the one of an energy guy who plays above the rim.
5. DJ Hogg (Texas A&M)
When I referred to Robert Williams as the only player on Texas A&M who could make an impact in the NBA next year, it is because I think D.J. Hogg will stay another year in College Station to fine-tune his game. He has a lot to work on, but has shown flashes of potential with his size and skill. He is an exceptional passer and has shown the ability to knock down treys. But, Hogg seems to disappear at times like the other day against Vanderbilt where he scored a disappointing two points. If he finds a way to be consistent and get the mentality to take over games, he could be a potential lottery pick in the next year or two.