LAHAINA, Hawaii — Prior to the start of the Maui Invitational, tickets for “Game 8” were the most difficult to obtain.
That’s not the championship game. Those tickets held panache because they allowed entry to the likely Washington/Kentucky game on the second day. Now, they do.
The 13th-ranked Huskies posted Virginia 106-63 on Monday. Eighth-ranked Kentucky stifled Oklahoma 76-64 thanks to an NBA-ready performance by freshman Terrence Jones (29 points, 13 rebounds). Despite efforts from involved parties, this is difficult to oversell.
Ever since the multi-talented Jones changed hats and allegiances following the most bizarre commitment announcement Washington has been associated with, he has been pegged a villain.
Initially, it was by the overzealous fans of his current school. Jones received death threats, racist comments, all the overextended vitriol surrounding teenage scholarship decisions. When Jones flipped, so did the source of anger. Washington fans were now jaded and bitter.
Monday’s opener showed why all the hubbub around the 6-foot-8 Jones. He is already the core of Kentucky’s team. The 29 points were two off the basketball rich school’s freshman record. In the second half, he ripped down a traffic rebound, stormed up the floor with a left-hand dribble, then snapped a no-look pass to running Kentucky center Josh Harrellson.
Jones added four blocks, three assists, and two steals to his power line on Monday. He was uncomfortable in the postgame press conference, an ill yet to be cured for the 18-year-old. Though age has no relevance to Kentucky coach John Calipari.
“I don’t care that you’re 18,” Calipari said of his message to Jones. “I’ve had other 18-year-olds that had your ability, your size and your look, and they’ve dominated games. But that’s hard. He’s not used to playing this hard. He’s not used to competing. As the game gets more physical, we’ll trully find out s he ready to be that guy.”
Washington is more equipped to slow Jones than overmatched Oklahoma. The guess is Darnell Gant will start as the primary defender on Jones, with Matthew Bryan-Amaning leaving whichever unskilled Kentucky center is in the game in order to help. Jones is more of a driver and post player than perimeter issue, making Washington’s best defender, Justin Holiday, of limited direct help.
The Huskies defensive strategy will likely be a redux of how they swarmed former Arizona State force James Harden. Gant and Holiday harassed Harden his senior season, shutting him down in Tempe. Harden became irritated, and he was an All-American senior. Jones reaction to tough sledding will be telling.
Jones dominates the emotional side of tonight’s showdown, but there are other pertinent tangibles. Kentucky plays just six players heavy minutes. Only seven in the rotation. Four players were on the floor more than 30 minutes in the opener.
Contrast that with Washington, which played 10 players at least 12 minutes, yet only topped out with Abdul Gaddy’s 26. Its arsenal is full, Kentucky’s is top heavy.
Next to Jones, no one has received more gruff prior to this game than Washington’s Isaiah Thomas. On Twitter, so often an expansive land of stupidity, Thomas has received his share of venom. He watched the Kentucky game on television Monday and would not bite Monday night.
“It’s the matchup everybody wants to see, so, we’ll be ready,” Thomas said. “It’s what we wanted. It’s a big game, the next opponent and we’re ready for it. I’m ready for it.”
Jones, as well, took a pass.
“With this tournament, I’m ready to play whoever,” Jones said quietly. “But, yeah I do have a lot of friends on that team.”
Of course, Washington coach Lorenzo Romar doused rather than inflamed.
“If I really wanted to do the media a favor, I could just makeup a wild story that we hate Kentucky and all that,” Romar said. “But that’s not the case. Sorry. Kentucky is the next opponent. If it wasn’t Kentucky and if it was Oklahoma, then we’d have animosity towards them because they’re the next opponent.”
While Romar spoke, Thomas smirked. He threw a glance at co-captain Justin Holiday, who stared straight ahead, battling the corners of his mouth.
No longer is this just Game 8. It is the emotional game of this tournament in paradise, no matter what the participants do or do not say publicly.