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Jones may be key to Kentucky's NCAA championship hopes

GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- While John Calipari deserves plenty of plaudits for Kentucky's 16-0 run through SEC play, the coach isn't afraid to relinquish some of the credit when necessary.

"I want to thank ESPN," Calipari said Sunday after Kentucky's 74-59 win at Florida ran the Wildcats' record to 30-1. "They've done one of the greatest services for my program by having that advertisement that keeps showing Indiana beating us. Every time my team watches ESPN, they see it. They just shake their heads. It makes them mad. Thank you, ESPN."

A popular debate topic in the past several weeks is that Kentucky needs to suffer another loss to be properly motivated for the NCAA tournament. Thanks to the recent WatchESPN commercial -- which shows video of Christian Watford's Dec. 11 buzzer-beater and the resultant court-storming flowing from a laptop to a tablet to a smartphone -- another on-court loss won't be necessary. Not when the Wildcats can watch themselves lose dozens of times a day depending on their viewing habits.

"I turn the TV off every time I see that commercial," Kentucky forward Terrence Jones said. "I almost sold my iPhone, my iPad ..."

Jones certainly doesn't lack for motivation, because Calipari presents the mercurial 6-foot-9 wing with a new challenge almost every day. Jones has struggled at times to unlock his vast skill set, and those struggles have frustrated Calipari to no end. "Terrence, you're one of the top five players in the country," Calipari said, recalling a common in-the-huddle refrain. "Play that way."

Sunday, Jones played that way. He scored Kentucky's first eight points because he attacked the basket -- humbling Florida's Erik Murphy in the process. That assertiveness showed up elsewhere, too. Consider this first-half sequence: After Florida rebounded a Michael Kidd-Gilchrist miss, Jones picked the pocket of Gators guard Mike Rosario to set up a Marquis Teague layup. On the defensive end, Jones rebounded a Brad Beal miss to start the break. Soon after, Teague found Jones for a baseline dunk. Jones then sprinted back down the floor and blocked Florida forward Patric Young.

Jones finished with 19 points, four rebounds, three blocks and two steals. That was the player everyone expected when Jones was named the preseason SEC Player of the Year. Jones obviously won't win the postseason version of that award -- it will go to teammate Anthony Davis, who further strengthened his case Sunday for national player of the year honors -- but if Jones can duplicate his energy level from Sunday, he may walk away from this season with a national championship ring.

"If Terrence Jones plays that way for us, we're not just good," Calipari said. "We're real good. That's what he was today. He was phenomenal."

Said Davis: "If Terrence plays like that every game, it will be very hard for anyone to beat us."

Davis is correct. When Jones plays up to his capability, it eliminates one of Kentucky's few weaknesses. If Jones can't be relied upon to infuriate Calipari with a lazy fadeaway jumper, opponents may not have a single easy possession on defense. When a 6-9 player with a 6-2 handle decides he wants to attack the basket on offense and block shots on defense, few teams can produce an answer.

What got into Jones? It might be the role Calipari has forced him into at practice. Though the 6-10 Davis has fouled out only once this season -- his average of 1.9 fouls a game is astounding for such a dominant shot-blocker -- Calipari wants to prepare his team for the possibility of a tournament game in which Davis picks up a couple of quick ones and has to sit the bench for a stretch. So for a significant portion of practice, Davis becomes the second-unit power forward and Jones moves to center.

Jones has emerged a different player, at least to one frequent observer. "You see him blocking shots today?" Calipari asked no one in particular. "He hasn't done that."

The practice switch also has allowed Davis to expand his offensive game. Few big men are as comfortable with the ball away from the basket as Davis, probably because he has only been a big man for a little more than two years. Early in his junior year of high school, Davis was a 6-3 guard. A massive growth spurt turned Davis into the force that has dominated opponents this season. "He may be growing, too," Calipari said, trying either to strike fear into the hearts of potential tourney opponents or to stoke the salivary glands of NBA scouts. "He looks longer."

We know Davis, who scored 22, grabbed 12 rebounds and blocked six shots Sunday, can erase shots near the basket. We know he can score in the paint. He also can defend guards on the perimeter, extending into an opponent's face a hand so massive that the poor sucker probably thinks he's dribbling directly into the Eye of Sauron. He also can confidently dribble atop the key if the offense needs to reset. He can take a fellow big man off the dribble for a lefty layup. Davis also can make the occasional three-pointer.

Wait. What? That's not even fair.

But Davis can. Riding the inside dominance of a suddenly motivated Young (21 points, nine rebounds), Florida cut Kentucky's lead to 46-44 early in the second half. Darius Miller and Kidd-Gilchrist helped Kentucky stretch the lead back to seven, and then Davis buried an open look on the right wing to extend the lead to double digits again. Davis said the old point guard skills didn't evaporate as his inseam increased. He simply hasn't had to show them off until now.

"There was no need for me to do it," Davis said. "But now, the way teams are playing -- backing off and leaving me open -- coach Cal told me to put the shots up."

Despite what appears to be a decided athletic advantage, Kentucky isn't unbeatable. The Wildcats suffered several defensive lapses Sunday, and the freshman-heavy lineup remains briefly susceptible to superior strategy. (Calipari was quick to blame himself for not previously teaching his players the adjustment for Florida coach Billy Donovan's second-half scheme of sending a player running for the offensive end the moment Kentucky fired up a shot, but that gambit led to only two baskets before Kentucky fixed the issue.) But if Davis continues to diversify his game and Jones continues to play closer to his ceiling, Kentucky might be as close to perfect as any team in the NCAA tournament.

But just in case the Wildcats need a reminder that they aren't perfect, they can flip on a television and watch themselves lose over and over and over again. That should be all the motivation they need.

"They show it like 100 times on ESPN a day," Davis said. "That really makes us mad."

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