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With resurgent Jones, balanced Wildcats giving opponents fits

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Terrence Jones has scored in double figures seven times in eight games in January. (Chet White, UK Athletics) Terrence Jones has scored in double figures seven times in eight games in January. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
Kentucky was dangerous enough without Terrence Jones playing like the All-American he was billed to be coming into his sophomore season.

The Wildcats navigated a difficult holiday schedule with just one loss on a buzzer-beating 3-pointer even though Jones was a shell of himself due to puzzling struggles and a finger injury.

The team was never ranked worse than third nationally, but evaluations of the team's prospects for Southeastern Conference play were often punctuated by questions wondering what the Cats would look like with Jones performing at capacity.

In a 74-50 win over LSU on Saturday, those questions were answered.

"If Terrence is going to show up and play like that, you can crown them right now," LSU coach Trent Johnson said.

No. 1 UK (21-1, 7-0 SEC) put together what John Calipari called its best performance of the season, leading Johnson to issue his bold proclamation about UK winning the conference title. Jones poured in a season-high 27 points to go with nine rebounds, three blocks and a pair of steals.

"(It felt) real good because it was within the offense and it came naturally because of how hard I was running the floor and rebounding," Jones said.

As Jones suggests, the scoring was nice, but more excitement should be gleaned from the way he did his scoring. That's certainly the reason the team was all smiles on the flight home from Baton Rouge, La.

"We were all happy in that locker room," Calipari said. "The team was ecstatic. It wasn't scoring. He was tough. He came up with balls. He posted physically strong even though the guy battled him. He battled back. The four jumps for a ball, we haven't seen that all year."

Saturday may have been the first time Jones put the numerous pieces of his game together, but his effort didn't come out of nowhere.

Since the calendar flipped to the New Year and Jones was able to put a forgettable December behind him, he has scored in double figures seven times in eight games. During that time, he's averaged 14.0 points, 6.3 rebounds and 2.3 blocks.

One of Jones' quietest games during that stretch came against the same Tennessee Volunteers (10-11, 2-4 SEC) that will visit Rupp Arena for a game at 7 p.m. on Tuesday. He managed 10 points and five rebounds in UK's hard-fought 65-62 win in Knoxville, Tenn., fouling out in just 24 minutes against a physical Volunteer front line that featured freshman Jarnell Stokes for the first time.

Jones said he was looking forward to the rematch, saying both Tennessee and Kentucky have improved significantly in the two-and-a-half weeks since the last matchup.

Tennessee head coach Cuonzo Martin has already watched tape of Jones' big game from this weekend and he knows how difficult life could be for the Volunteers if he duplicates it. However, he knows he can't afford to let his team get swept up in stopping Jones with all the weapons that surround him.

"When he's playing and scoring at that level, it's tough to beat," Martin said. "But as talented as he is, they have so many parts and so many pieces. It's hard to identify just one guy. You just have to do a very good job of playing team defense and keeping them off the glass."

Martin learned that from experience, as freshman forwards Michael Kidd-Gilchrist (17 points, 12 rebounds) and Anthony Davis (18 points, eight rebounds, four blocks) foiled his team's upset bid the last time around. Kidd-Gilchrist, in particular, caught Martin's eye with his six offensive rebounds.

"From an offensive standpoint, he's a key because he's at that size where he can go inside, he can go outside and it's tough for traditional guards to keep him off the glass because he's so big and physical," Martin said.

Kidd-Gilchrist made an impression on the Tennessee headman even back during his high school days.

"The one thing he did was he played hard," Martin said. "It seems like that's a skill nowadays when a guy plays hard. You don't see it as much but he plays extremely hard. He plays with a passion, an excitement and he's smiling out there. He's a very talented player."

During Jones' lackluster December, Kidd-Gilchrist was pressed into more of a featured offensive role and he responded with big game after big game, culminating in a 24-point, 19-rebound outing vs. Louisville that thrust him into the Player of the Year conversations Jones was supposed to have been a part of.

As Jones was exploding at LSU, Kidd-Gilchrist happily focused on defense (two steals), rebounding (eight boards) and making his teammates better (four assists). He scored just one point on five shots, but Calipari said he still may have been "the best player on the floor."

"Guys like him don't get enough credit because they impact winning without scoring," Johnson said after losing to Kentucky. "Defending, rebounding, on the floor, he's a great player. He guards your one through your four, probably can guard five, never says a word and just competes. He's a great player."

There will be games when Kidd-Gilchrist is called upon to take 15-plus shots and score 20-plus points, but those times when he's asked to operate more in the periphery are even more important as the Cats work to take home some of the trophies Johnson foretold. That goes for every one of his teammates too.

"When people watch us, they say 'Man, they are unselfish,' " Calipari said. " 'All of these All-Americans pass it to one another, and they make the extra pass, they have seven guys.' That's why we are where we are, or we wouldn't be here.

"Everybody has to sacrifice and 'do less' so you are 'doing more' for us."

Michael Kidd-Gilchrist shows off UK's new alternate uniform at practice on Monday. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics) Michael Kidd-Gilchrist shows off UK's new alternate uniform at practice on Monday. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics)
Players eager to wear new uniforms

While warming up for practice on Monday, players gave media in attendance for interviews a sneak preview of the new Nike Hyper Elite Platinum uniforms they will wear for tomorrow's game against Tennessee.

Since they were unveiled last week, the new duds have been a hot topic among fans. Senior guard Darius Miller was asked about the negative response by some who prefer sticking to UK's traditional blue and white.

"I don't know what to say to them," Miller said. "We're going to enjoy it. We're going to have fun playing."

Miller, for one, feels privileged to be part of a UK team that gets to take part in the rare occasion.

"I think we're all excited to wear them," Miller said. "They're pretty nice uniforms and to be able to get something special like this, it feels good to be a part of something like that."

The players will wait to pass final judgment on the alternate look until after they try them out though.

"Hopefully they bring us good luck," Jones said.

CLICK HERE TO SEE A PHOTO GALLERY OF THE CATS WEARING THE NEW UNIFORMS

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