Terrence Jones ready to lead UK

The idea -- or maybe more accurately, the hope -- was to take the all-boy bundle of energy and tire him out.

Run him like you would a golden retriever puppy.

And so Ava Mashia would pack everything she could get her hands on -- football, basketball, tennis racket, baseball and bat -- and grab hold of her nephew and head to the park. They would play for hours, feasting on a sports smorgasbord where neither deference for your elders nor charity to a child was allowed.

"I never let him win, not once,'' Mashia said. "He wasn't going to win at anything until he earned it.''

Eventually Terrence Jones earned it, his aunt the first victim in a basketball ladder climb that took no prisoners, only wins, across the state of Oregon.

Now in his second season at Kentucky, Jones is hoping to do the same to the college game.

With yet another loaded freshman class, UK always was going to be good this season. When Jones eschewed the NBA and elected to return for his sophomore season, most everyone agreed the Wildcats could be great.

"I told Terrence, you look at those freshmen and you say, 'You guys are really good, but you aren't better than me,''' coach John Calipari said. "He's practicing that way. He's trying to say, 'Look, I went through this. I just went to the Final Four.'''

It is more than Jones' experience that will determine Kentucky's results; it's his maturity.

Freshman year isn't easy on anyone -- not for the general studies student whose game is limited to his Xbox and certainly not for the basketball player tossed into the never-ending spotlight of Kentucky basketball.

Attention certainly is nothing new for Jones. He led Jefferson High to three consecutive Oregon state titles and joined Kevin Love and Fred Jones as the only Class 5A players to twice earn player of the year honors by The Oregonian newspaper. His college choice had all the makings of a soap opera, with seemingly the entire Pacific Northwest equal parts elated and offended when he chose Washington and then reconsidered, opting instead for Kentucky.

But there is high school scrutiny, and there is Bluegrass scrutiny.
Even Jones' mother, Linda Mashia-Jones, was amazed.

"People would come up to him at the mall and want his autograph or a picture with him,'' she said. "I'm like, 'What? That's just Terrence. That's my baby.' It was a little overwhelming.''

And an indoctrination Jones had to learn almost entirely alone. After Mashia-Jones dropped her son off in Lexington in August, she didn't see him again until November, when the Wildcats played at Portland.

Something of a mama's boy who was raised by and with all women -- his mother, grandmother Pearl, Ava and his older sister, Ashley -- Jones had to find his way 2,000 miles away from home.

"There's no straight airplane ride from Portland to Lexington, so he had to do it himself,'' Mashia-Jones said. "I think there was an adjustment for him, but I thought if he stayed here and never got away, he wouldn't mature. Boys are harder to read sometimes, so if he was homesick, he never said it to me but I know it wasn't easy.''

Jones had his share of hiccups. Pulled out of the starting lineup against Auburn, he was memorably -- and publicly -- cursed out by his coach during a nationally televised game against Alabama a week later.

The video went viral, and Calipari issued an apology.

Watching back home in Oregon, Mashia merely shrugged.

"That's part of growing up,'' she said. "Sometimes people have to get in your face. He can take it.''

She should know. Mashia is the one who instilled toughness and perseverance in Jones. An athlete herself, Mashia also was a basketball star at Jefferson High School and was a walk-on at Washington. With no kids of her own, she devoted her energy and attention to her nieces and nephews, packing them all up for park excursions until they got too old to hang with their aunt.

"She's the one who pretty much made me fall in love with basketball and made me want to play,'' Jones said. "We'd play, and then we'd watch games together. She'd explain to me what was going on and then take me on the court to teach me.''

They would stay in the park from morning 'til night. When Jones needed a break, he would take a dip in the park pool, and for lunch the two would either buy a bite to eat at the Popeyes around the corner or sit down to the bag lunch Mashia packed.

"There was no need to go back to the house,'' Mashia said. "He'd just tear it apart, and I'd have to clean it.''

There were no gimmes, no easy games of H-O-R-S-E, no trophies-for-everyone softness.
Everything -- even baseball -- was one-on-one, with a winner and a loser.

"As he got bigger, he'd say, 'I don't want to elbow you,''' Mashia said. "But I'd tell him that it was part of the game. I reminded him, the women in this game have some skills.''

By the time Jones was in the fifth grade -- and playing and dominating on teams filled with boys older than him -- Mashia knew he might be something special.

Then when the seventh grade came and he beat his aunt for the first time, well, that was the telltale sign.

"The first time he beat me, I think he called everyone he knew,'' Mashia said. "I remember him yelling, 'I beat Auntie Ava. I beat Auntie Ava.'"

Jones insists he beat his aunt every time thereafter.
Her memory is different.
"Oh, I definitely beat him again,'' she said. "We kept playing until he was like 6-4, and I know I beat him.''

Mashia is less inclined to believe she could manage the same results now.

Jones is bigger and stronger, but most of all, he's mentally tougher. He chose to come back to college to improve his draft status, but also because he has unfinished business at Kentucky.

And the attitude shows. He is different, most everyone who has watched him play says.

Calipari has spent the better part of this preseason lauding Jones' maturity, pointing to a newfound commitment at practice as evidence that Jones is ready not just to be the best player for Kentucky -- but one of the best in the country.

"I'm used to being here now,'' Jones said. "The attention and all is just part of being here. I take it as something to enjoy now. I'd rather have all the attention than nobody paying any attention to us.''

No worries there. Kentucky is like a moth to a flame for basketball attention. A year ago, when the Wildcats stumbled out of the gate, struggling to win on the road, the handwringing and fretting stretched statewide.

Yet from those sort of humble beginnings, a Final Four team emerged. It was an unexpected finish for what was expected to be a gap team -- the good one sandwiched between two great ones.

Now the Final Four is almost a foregone conclusion, a dangerous assumption in the fickle world of college basketball, where injuries and the madness of March can untrack even the surest of things.

It will be up to Jones, as well as Doron Lamb and Darius Miller, to shepherd the freshmen along and to deflect the noise.

Of course if Jones needs a sounding board, he knows who to call.

Ava Mashia has packed up her gear, but she still has plenty of advice.

"I tape all of the games,'' she said. "So he'll call me after, and I'll suggest that he tries this or that. He still listens.''

Dana O'Neil covers college basketball for ESPN.com and can be reached at espnoneil@live.com. Follow Dana on Twitter: @dgoneil1.