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Rebounding with Terrence Jennings

In Terrence Jennings, one sees shades of Earl Clark: a combination of NBA talent and D-League motivation; five-star potential with JUCO work ethic. Just as vehemently as fans once demanded he get more of ______’s minutes, they turned sour and wonder how he was ever rated so highly.

In highlight films, we remember Earl for his passion in the final months of the 2008-09 season, his last as a Cardinal. We think of his posterization of Notre Dame’s Luke Harangody and his 20-foot dagger at Freedom Hall in the final minute against #1 ranked Pittsburgh. It's hard not to crack a smile and channel Clark’s youthful pride while watching him bounce up and down at mid-court, pounding his chest in self-adulation. In a way, that moment--Earl's sudden outburst of emotion--represents college basketball at its finest.

Though not catalogued on YouTube, we also remember the wasted games prior to 2009 where Clark's head seemed to be elsewhere. A gifted basketball player whose spurtability of effort was more maddening than fruitful. The type of behavior that causes all-knowing fans to quip "well, we saw that coming" after watching a highly-touted phenom flounder as a professional.

Now Terrence Jennings, he of lofty recruiting rankings and credulous comparisons to Amar'e Stoudemire, has been slipping into the same classification this season with fans.

He’s been affectionately called "Tiny" here on CC, an unintentional ode to ‘Samantha’ Samuels, the emasculating moniker once bestowed by CC readers upon TJ’s previous teammate and primary competition for playing time. We've also recently embraced a " T-/T+" scale to track his effort during live threads, in dumbfounded awe of someone with such a gifted body but yet counterfeit motivation. 

Why do we as fans focus so much energy on negativity? What is it about us that makes us demand a player like TJ live up to lofty standards while lavishing others like Elisha Justice with praise for simply not screwing up too badly? Maybe it’s the memory of our own failures. Or the almost uncontrollable urge to treat our favorite team's college athletes as though they are our own children.

When they aren’t living up to what we feel is their potential, we are quick to judge. We lecture them from our couches, beer in hand, about how the game’s supposed to be played.  As kids do, they sometimes ignore the criticism and regress into old habits and coping mechanisms.

For TJ, coping meant running.

From the Courier-Journal:

Brian Hamilton, Terrence Jennings' former AAU coach with Play Hard, Play Smart, said Jennings' benching actually brought out a positive sign of his maturity. "In the past, he would have checked out mentally," Hamilton said.

Jennings used to deal with his disappointments by changing venues. He skipped around high schools and during his senior year attended three prep schools. So when he was stuck playing behind and not beside Samuels for the better part of two seasons, he was "pretty much 50-50" about transferring from U of L.

50-50 about transferring from U of L. 50-50 on escaping. On taking the easy way out. But TJ stayed. And as C.L. Brown reported this week, it seems that TJ is finally taking the criticism to heart instead of running from it;

"I thought about it, and it was going to be the same anywhere else," Jennings said. "(Pitino is) on me, OK, I don't rebound enough. (If) I go somewhere else and I'm not doing the same thing, another coach is going to tell me the same thing, then I'm going to want to leave there.

"There's a point and time as a man you got to be like, ‘What am I doing wrong?' I had to look at myself."

To hear someone his age acknowledge failure, to selflessly admit mistakes in the presence of his loudest critics, that’s a great sign. Humility is something many of us struggle with into our 30s, 40s and beyond. If he can change at 22, maybe we can all change. Or at least change our perception of TJ.  If it comes to fruition, his transformation couldn’t come at a better time for a team in dire need of a frontcourt presence.

In Louisville’s four losses this season, TJ averaged 2.75 rebounds per game. In the seven games after TJ was replaced in the starting lineup following the loss to Drexel, his rebounding average dropped from 5.9 to 3 per game. Furthermore, including Drexel, he played eight straight games without grabbing more than 5 rebounds. That streak finally ended 10 days ago when an inspired TJ battled his way to eight rebounds and hit four clutch free throws in the epic 18-point comeback against Marquette.

Moments before the Marquette game, C.L. Brown tweeted that something in TJ was different: "FWIW, Jennings was as charged as I've seen him during warm-ups, asst. coach Tim Fuller has been in his ear." With his junior year yet to expire, TJ still has ample time to prove his doubters wrong.

Like Earl Clark, TJ’s work ethic is his biggest enemy—not criticism. If he can embrace it, Louisville could be a very good team. But without "T+" in the last 12 regular season games and Big East Tournament, Louisville could be minus an NCAA Tournament bid come March.