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LEXINGTON, KY - "Terrence Jones is back. Not much to it."
That's how Anthony Davis summed up the performance that his front court mate had in Kentucky's 79-64 win over South Carolina on Saturday afternoon, and he had a very valid point. Jones had been a different player for the past month, starting at halftime of UK's 73-72 win over North Carolina back on December 3rd. Since that game, Jones had only managed to score in double figures once, averaging 5.0 ppg and 3.0 rpg while shooting 32.3% (10-31) from the floor.
It didn't help matter that Jones was dealing with a dislocated finger on his shooting hand, an injury painful enough for him to miss two games.
Jones snapped out of that funk in impressive fashion Saturday, finishing with 20 points in 32 minutes on 8-9 shooting from the floor. He would have finished the game a perfect 8-8 if he hadn't jacked up a three late in the second half.
"To be playing with more confidence and get it going like that was real good," Jones said after the win.
"That's the Terrence Jones we know. He took that last three, that made me angry, but short of that?" head coach John Calipari said after the game. "Just getting him to be aggressive offensively, make baskets, make free throws, make that three at the end of the first half. That's who he is, but I told him after the game, now is when you work harder than you have been working. I said 'Do you want to go back to where you were?' He said 'No.'"
There is no question the scoring boost is nice. Kentucky has had times this season where they have looked a bit lost offensively. Michael Kidd-Gilchrist has been a playmaker all year long and Doron Lamb, Darius Miller and Marquis Teague have all shown flashes -- some more often than others -- of being capable of carrying this team for extended stretches, but there is little doubt who the most talented offensive weapon on the UK roster is.
He's a 6'9" power forward with an impressive array of god-given physical tools that can score from anywhere on the court. When he buys into what Coach Cal asks of him -- take smart shots, run the floor with a purpose, aggressiveness without being selfish -- he looks like an all-american. When he doesn't, he looks like he should be coming off of the bench. Its as simple as that.
"I get a lot more assists off him," Teague said with a laugh when I asked him what kind of influence this Terrence Jones has on the Kentucky team.
The issue, however, isn't necessarily his scoring.
Kentucky can win games without Jones going for 20 points.
Where his presence is needed more is in the oh-so-important "doesn't show up in the box score" department.
Kentucky has one of the most imposing front lines in the country with Jones, Davis and Kidd-Gilchrist. But Jones is really the only guy they have on the roster that has any kind of physical presence in the paint. Davis is a terrifyingly-good shot blocker, but he's a string bean that will get pushed around by the heavyweights in the SEC. MKG is a junkyard dog, but he's all of 6'6"; he's not going to be bodying up Patric Young or Arnett Moultrie.
To me, the most important stats you will find in Saturday's box score is the one defensive rebound that Jones grabbed and 16 offensive rebounds that South Carolina came down with. If the Gamecocks were better, that could have really cost Kentucky.
Coach Cal agreed, saying "I wanted him to get about two or three more rebounds, but he played well."
Its tough to criticize a kid that went out and scored 20 points in a game like Jones did tonight, but I think the criticism is valid. Jones is that good. He has as big of an influence on the direction of the Kentucky season as anyone on their roster, and its up to him alone whether or not he lives up to that standard.
He's the difference between whether or not Kentucky is a Final Four contender or the favorite to win the national title.
And to be fair, he showed signs of taking steps towards reaching that potential on Saturday.
"He flew up and down the court. When you run that fast and you try to play that hard, you'll be aggressive offensively," Coach Cal said. "When you are passive on defense and passive going for balls and don't want to mix it up, there is no possible way you can be aggressive offensively. It doesn't work that way. Your body doesn't switch on at one end and switch off at the other end. You're always tough or you're always soft. And he hadn't been wanting to mix it up. He didn't at Indiana."
And it was more than simply running the floor. There was one possession in the first half where he dove for a loose ball and while he didn't come up with it himself, Kentucky ended up gaining possession when the ball probably should have gone to South Carolina. I can't remember the last time I saw Jones hit the floor like that.
"We haven't seen that in a while. He did stuff that he's done in the past, and now he needs to build on it," Coach Cal said. "This isn't like OK, I'll back up and put my toes up and go eat cheetos. Now, I'm going to go work harder. ... I'm not going back to where I was."
"Some guys argue that, I haven't had many. Some say, you know what, if I listen to him, it works out well. Its worked out well for everyone else, maybe I should listen to him. They also know that its about them, its not about me. Its about them, so why shouldn't they listen to me? Its not smart."
At this point, its all up to Jones.
As Coach Cal laid out, Kentucky has just 12 real practices left on the season. Of the 60 days remaining in Kentucky's regular season, 16 are games, 16 are practices to prepare for an upcoming game, eight are off-days and eight more are light days the day after a game. Do the math, and there are only 12 times where Kentucky's coaching staff will be able to get in the gym with Jones and try to get him to bust his tail to improve himself.
The rest is on him.
"Because I've been working out and preparing myself better," Jones said when asked what the difference was on Saturday. "If I'm playing, worrying about getting hit, not wanting to shoot because I know I can't shoot because it hurts and I can't grip the ball. Working out and making shots and seeing it go in and believing it won't hurt as much anymore is what helped."