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UK title hopes could depend on which Terrence Jones shows up

Mar 28, 2012, 9:00 AM EDT

NCAA Basketball Tournament - Baylor v Kentucky Getty Images

A lot of Division I players have come out of Jefferson High School in north Portland, Oregon, but Terrence Jones has all the tools to be the best of them. Jones led the school to three consecutive State titles, was ranked amongst the nation’s top-10 prep prospects by both Scout and ESPN, and played in the 2010 McDonald’s All-American game.

In his first college game he had Kentucky fans salivating over his 25 point, 12 rebound performance. The former high school point guard (as a freshman) displayed a skill set uncommon in his players his size. He could score from anywhere. He could handle the ball. He could defend and rebound. He displayed surprising footwork for a player not used to the post, and could finish over either shoulder.

But as the season wore on, his game displayed some cracks.

He failed to consistently play strong, and instead opted to avoid contact. His deep jumper suddenly didn’t look like a very good option. And most importantly, he regularly lost both his focus and his emotional control. And as a player who openly shows how he’s feeling, everyone in the building noticed. It didn’t help when his own coach exploded on him during a January game.

Still, as a freshman, he led the Wildcats in rebounding and finished 2nd in scoring with 15.7 points per game.

After he withdrew from the 2011 NBA draft and elected to return to Kentucky, it was expected that his role would diminish. After all, Anthony Davis, Marquis Teague and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist were on board to shoulder portions of the load.

Everything started just fine. Kentucky raced to an 8-0 start with a few impressive wins. Jones was playing well. His teammates were jelling. And then came Indiana.

Jones only scored 4 points and had 6 turnovers in the Kentucky loss. And in the next game he was scoreless in 10 minutes before suffering a gruesome pinky injury. When he returned, he only averaged 7 points a game as Kentucky wrapped up their out of conference schedule. The Kentucky lineup was still fear inducing, but without Jones playing well they looked vulnerable.

But then, once again, things began to click.  He had 20 against South Carolina. 27 points and 9 boards against LSU. He had a double-double against Ole Miss, another against LSU, and a 3rd in their SEC final loss to Vanderbilt (when Darius Miller and Doron Lamb combined to go 3-16 from beyond the arc). He opened this tournament with a 22 point, 10 rebound performance, and seemed to be playing at a very high level.

But then he only had 8 points while fouling out against Iowa State. He had a decent 12 point game against Indiana and then 12 points, 9 boards and 6 assists against Baylor.

It’s probably unfair to monitor him on a game to game basis, but as a player he’s proven that he needs that level of scrutiny. He might be surrounded by first round draft picks, but four of them are freshmen. He’s only a sophomore, but on this team that makes him a veteran. And Kentucky could very well need that leadership to survive this weekend. He’s got the talent. He’s got the game. Now he just needs to play focused, under control, and ready to win the battle on the next possession.

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