LOUISVILLE, Ky. (KT) -- When Carlik Jones arrived in Louisville last summer to extend his college basketball career for one more season, he wasn't exactly a household name in the sport.
After all, he had spent four years under the radar at Radford University in the Big South Conference. Radford? Where's that? (Radford, Va.). Big South? What other teams are in that conference? (Campbell, High Point, Longwood, to name a few, and yes I had to look them up).
So given that low-major background there were certainly skeptics who doubted the 6-foot-1 point guard could hold his own in the Atlantic Coast Conference, let alone make a substantial impact for the Cardinals.
However, Jones has not only survived but thrived. While there were doubters, the most important person wasn't among them because Jones is nothing if not confident in his own skills. He never questioned his ability to make a smooth transition to high-major competition.
"My confidence is always high," Jones said. "My confidence never wavers."
Any doubts that you could play at this level successfully?
"No, not at all," Jones said. "Knowing my instincts playing basketball. At the end of the day, it's basketball and I'm really confident in the work I put in. I proved what I already thought coming in, that I can play anywhere. I can play with some of the best teams and some of the best players in college basketball and play in big games. I'm doing what I thought I was capable of.
"When I entered the transfer portal, it was me wanting to show the world that I could play in one of the best conferences in college basketball. To be able to come in here and show the world what I could do, it's huge. It lets them know that I'm a gamer and I belong."
What Jones has done is put himself in the middle of the ACC Player of the Year conversation, as well as landing on several national awards list. He is a member of the Wooden Award Late Season Top 20 Watch List, The Sporting News Mid-Season All-America team and one of the top 10 candidates for the Bob Cousy Point guard of the Year Award.
Jones' main competition for the ACC award, which will be announced Monday, are Duke's Matthew Hurt, Moses Wright of Georgia Tech and Justin Champagnie of Pittsburgh. One ACC coach has already decided that he's casting his vote for UofL's electrifying grad transfer.
"Jones has been fabulous," Notre Dame's Mike Brey said. "Carlik is playing great and he's their motor man, he makes them go. When he's rolling Jones is as good as anybody. There's many candidates, but he sticks out to me. He's just a man, and he's an unbelievable scorer."
Although Virginia Tech coach Mike Young didn't go as far as Brey and divulge his choice for Player of the Year, he said he became an admirer of Jones while watching him play at nearby Radford.
"He makes all the right plays," Young said. "He's unselfish. There's not a selfish bone in his body."
Jones ranks among the top 10 in the ACC in five major categories -- scoring (17.5 ppg, 4th); assists (4.5 apg, 4th); steals (1.5, 7th); assists/turnover ratio (2.00, 4th); and free throwe percentage (.826, 4th). And he's durable. He missed the Wisconsin game with COVID-19, but other than that he has played almost every minute of every game. He leads the ACC and ranks 12th nationally in minutes played at 37.3 per game.
Not bad for a guy who was ignored coming out of Aiken High School in Cincinnati by every high major program in the country. His only suitors besides Radford were Buffalo, Bowling Green and Eastern Kentucky.
Now he has the chance to pull off a rare double-double -- Player of the Year in two conferences. He earned that award in the Big South as a senior after averaging 20.0 points, 5.0 rebounds and 5.5 assists for the regular-season champion Highlanders.
But pure statistics don't do justice to Jones' value to the Cards. He is their leader, he runs the offense and he's the guy they turn to for clutch plays at crunch time, and he usually comes through.
"I actually wish for those moments," he said. "I feel like I thrive in those situations."
Of course, no one could have predicted the extent of Jones' impact in the ACC, but it didn't take UofL coach Chris Mack to suspect that Jones was a special player. And Jones quickly earned the trust of his teammates as well as his coach.
"He projected confidence, really from day one," Mack said. "He has tremendous belief in his own ability. In the course of 18 games we've played he's proven he's not afraid of the moment in any way, shape or form. He's a terrific free throw shooter, he's a guy that's really hard to contain off the dribble, because he changes speeds so well and uses his body. And he has really good vision, so you've got to be careful when you double him or extend on his ball screens because he's gonna find that passing lane to an open teammate. We know he can finish games."
Despite all the praise and success that has come his way this season, Jones says he isn't finished trying to make a favorable impression as UofL (13-5, 8-4) plays its final home game of the season Saturday afternoon against No. 21/20 Virginia (16-6, 12-4).
"I still feel like I'm proving myself," he said. "Don't get me wrong, I do appreciate the accolades I'm getting, but I don't let it get me bigheaded. I'm still hungry. I'm still motivated to always be the best player on the floor, the best leader and a winner."
Russ Brown, a former sportswriter for The Courier-Journal and USA Today, covers University of Louisville sports and college football and basketball for Kentucky Today. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.