Kentucky faces stiff test on road trip
Kentucky freshman Terrence Jones has his homecoming all mapped out.
There'll be some time hanging out with his mother and his grandmother. A stop by his old high school. Maybe at least one home-cooked meal.
Coach John Calipari hopes his talented 6-foot-8 forward can squeeze in a couple of hours for Friday's game against Portland while he's at it.
''I told him that I have never had a player go home and play well, so good luck,'' Calipari said with a sarcastic shrug.
He's only slightly kidding. The NCAA's decision to rule freshman center Enes Kanter permanently ineligible for receiving improper benefits from a Turkish club team has left the Wildcats with a major hole in the middle that Jones may be required to fill.
It's a job he'll accept, even if it's not the one he signed on for. When the Portland native signed with the Wildcats last spring - a decision he made only after verbally committing to Washington at a televised press conference - he figured he would could float around the perimeter while Kanter did the dirty work inside.
Though Kanter is appealing the NCAA's ruling, his absence leaves Jones as Kentucky's most athletic big man. He showcased flashes of his versatility in an 88-65 win over East Tennessee State last Friday, joining former Kentucky star Sam Bowie as the only freshmen to post double-double in their debut. Jones finished with 25 points, 12 rebounds, three steals and two blocks in one very eye-opening performance.
''Terrence was a beast,'' said senior center Josh Harrellson.
He'll have to be if Kentucky wants to survive a tougher early-season test that than it had last season, when the Wildcats reeled off 19 straight wins to start the year behind the play of freshmen stars John Wall and DeMarcus Cousins.
Kentucky is just as young, if not younger, this season. And without Kanter the Wildcats aren't as deep, making next week's journey to Hawaii for the Maui Invitational anything but a vacation.
''This is going to be a learning situation for us,'' Calipari said. ''We have to figure out what we do, how hard we have to play.''
It's a lesson Calipari has tried to impart on Jones for months, even if it's meant making Jones a scapegoat in practice when things go wrong. The ''tough love'' approach has worked because Jones knows the barbs from his coach aren't always personal.
''I don't look at it the wrong way,'' Jones said. ''I don't look at it like he's yelling at me because he's mad. I just look at it as he's wanting me to do better to better the team and he expects it.''
The Wildcats will need Jones and the rest of the freshmen to grow up quickly if they want to hang with veteran-laden squads like Oklahoma and No. 17 Washington out in Maui.
''Right now we are the youngest team out there,'' Calipari said. ''Whether it's Portland, or any of the three teams we will play in Maui, we are going to be the youngest. There are going to be things that will happen and I am just going to have to tell them to go make a play. That's where we are.''
Kentucky made plenty of plays during its season-opening win over East Tennessee, knocking down 13 3-pointers and putting the game away with a 16-0 second-half run.
Yet that was in the comforts of Rupp Arena. The only Wildcat who will feel at home in the Rose Garden on Friday is Jones, who led Jefferson High to three state championships on the same floor.
Though Jones never considered signing with Portland, he's seen the Pilots plenty of times. Usually he'd go to watch some big-name school come in to play only to walk out of the arena shaking his head after Portland pulled off the upset.
He's wary, and he expects the Wildcats to too. Calipari knows his team can't afford to look past the Pilots toward the challenge awaiting in Hawaii
Kentucky isn't big enough, old enough or talented enough to simply walk out on the floor and dominate.
''We have got to be a gang-rebounding team,'' Calipari said. ''We can't just have one player gobbling up every ball. We don't have that yet.''
They might not get it if Kanter's appeal is upheld, though the Wildcats have found a use for him as what Harrellson called ''the best practice player in America.''
Under NCAA rules Kanter is able to practice with the Wildcats until a decision is made on his appeal. His presence has helped Jones, Harrellson and Eloy Vargas become more physical. The way Harrellson figures it, if he can slow down Kanter in practice, doing the same thing in a game should be no problem.
He might be one of the few who view it that way. Kentucky dropped a spot in the latest AP poll after the initial decision on Kanter came down, a move Harrellson took personally.
''People are going to look at it like, 'Oh, Enes can't play. They're not going to be good this year' or something like that,'' Harrellson said. ''We're going to find ways to win. We're going to find ways around that and we're going to do everything we have to do.''