COLLEGE PARK - The most telling sign of progress in Mike Jones' game wasn't the Maryland sophomore scoring eight straight points in the second half of Saturday's win over Duke, when the Blue Devils seemed on the verge of putting the Terrapins away.
It wasn't Jones' beautiful wrap-around pass to John Gilchrist, who scored and was fouled, with the three-point play cutting the Duke lead to one late in regulation.
It came on the defensive end. Terps coach Gary Williams used Jones, when Chris McCray was out, to chase J.J. Redick, perhaps the top offensive player in the Atlantic Coast Conference.
"It shows how much I stepped up my game," said Jones, who had 15 points, five rebounds and a block in Maryland's 99-92 overtime victory. "Whenever Coach puts me in the game, I know it is defense first. A lot of times, good defense makes your offense."
Heading into tonight's game at North Carolina State, where 22nd-ranked Maryland (15-7, 6-5) will attempt to avenge a 16-point home loss to the Wolfpack (14-10, 4-7), Jones is playing the best basketball of his Terps career. He is averaging 14 points (about eight above his season average) over the past three games, shooting 71 percent from the field and 50 percent from beyond the three-point line.
After the Duke game, Williams called Jones "instant offense," but the other things the sophomore has done recently are more gratifying to the Terps coach, who has depended on Jones to offset the season-ending loss of D.J. Strawberry. Jones (6 feet 5, 200 pounds) has averaged 15 minutes over the past three contests.
"What Mike has done is become an all-around player, and obviously that helped us," said Williams. "His defense [against Duke] was really good. He's just completely changed his game to be a complete player. He's only a sophomore. Everybody thought he should be a great player last year and when he wasn't, something was wrong. Nothing is wrong. You develop your game at different speeds. It's supposed to be a four-year deal, and he's on his way."
Over the past two seasons, very few topics on Maryland basketball have been debated as much as Jones' playing time. He was a McDonald's All-American out of Thayer Academy in Braintree, Mass., a consensus top-20 national recruit and ranked the second-best high school shooting guard in the nation. LeBron James was No. 1.
But Jones averaged only 10 minutes a contest as a freshman last season, as Williams felt the guard needed to play better defense, become a better ball handler and diversify his offensive game. After Jones averaged only eight minutes through one seven-game stretch this season, rumors abounded that he could transfer, though the sophomore has shot them down at every opportunity and his minutes and shooting touch have improved steadily.
Through 12 games, Jones was shooting 28 percent from the field and 25 percent from three-point range. In the 10 games since, Jones has hit 31 of 54 shots (57 percent from field) and 10 of 23 three-point shots (43 percent). In home wins over Virginia Tech and Duke last week, Jones hit 10 of 11 shots.
"I got into a rhythm a couple of games ago," said Jones, who admitted that his confidence went up after Williams gave him his first career start at Duke on Jan. 26. "That's what happens with a shooter. Sometimes, I feel like everything is going to go in, sometimes it might not."
Jones is more than just a threat on the perimeter for the Terps, who often face zone defenses because they are not a strong outside shooting team. He has shown the ability to score in the post off curls, finish inside over bigger players and convert off the dribble.
"He never did that in high school," Williams said. "He was just a stand-still shooter. He knows now that he can use his athletic ability to help him score rather than just shoot the ball."
The Terps might need another big performance from Jones tonight. Maryland is 1-4 on the road in the ACC, and while the Terps moved closer to locking up an NCAA tournament bid on Saturday, their opponent tonight is in a far different standing.
The Wolfpack has lost nine of its past 13 games, and many feel Herb Sendek's team might need to win at least four of its five remaining regular-season games to have a chance for a tournament bid. N.C. State is coming off an impressive road victory Sunday over Georgia Tech and is as healthy as it has been all season.
Meanwhile, Williams wants his team to build off the victory over Duke, rather than regress. The week after the Terps won at Duke last month, they went on the road and lost to Clemson and Miami.
"I think we're gradually seeing what it takes to be a good team," Williams said. "We've had our ups and downs, but we're 22nd in the country. ... I like where we are right now. We have to continue to play well."
Matchup: No. 22 Maryland (15-7, 6-5) vs. N.C. State (14-10, 4-7)
Site: RBC Center, Raleigh, N.C.
TV/Radio: Ch. 54/WBAL (1090 AM)
Line: N.C. State by 2
Jones on rise
Mike Jones' stats in Maryland's past three games:
Duke: 15 points, 6-for-7 from foul line
Virginia Tech: 13 points, 6-for-6 from field in 11 minutes
Miami: 14 points, seven rebounds, 4-for-9 from three-point range