MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – Kevin Jones admits there was a point last year when his frustrations were getting the best of him. A self-confessed perfectionist, Jones was playing far below his high expectations in losses to Marshall and Louisville in late January, and it was wearing on him like a bad toupée.
Against the Herd, Jones scored just 9 points and grabbed six boards in a four-point setback, and then a week later at Louisville, he went 3 for 13 from the floor and scored only 8 points in a winnable game the Mountaineers lost by one to the Cardinals on Peyton Siva’s last-second basket.
It was after the Louisville game when Jones decided to go back to doing the things he does best: pound the glass, shoot open jumpers and not try and create offense that wasn’t there. The result was some of the basketball he’s played at WVU, including a monster 25-point, 16-rebound performance in the rematch against Louisville at the Coliseum – this time a last-second Mountaineer victory.
Over the final 13 games of the 2011 season, Jones averaged 13 points and 8.3 rebounds per game, shooting better than 45 percent from the floor. He played well in West Virginia’s 84-76 come-from-behind victory over Clemson in the first round of the NCAA tournament, hitting a huge 3 right before the end of the half to tie the game and finishing with 17 points and nine boards. He also had good games down the stretch against Villanova, UConn and Marquette.
Indeed, it was a much stronger ending to a season that promised so much for the 6-foot-8 forward, picked by the coaches for the preseason all-Big East team. Jones said there were valuable lessons learned from his uneven junior campaign.
“As far as last year, I kind of struggled a lot within myself trying to force myself to do things that I wasn’t particularly good at and it was kind of hurting the team instead of helping the team,” he admitted. “Once I got back to the things I was good at, as far as offensive rebounding and shooting when I’ve got open shots, instead of forcing everything, I started playing better and the team started responding as well.”
Jones admits he sometimes overanalyzes things too much on the court instead of just playing worry-free basketball.
“Sometimes on the court if I don’t make a shot then I have to shoot a different way to make it where I just have to trust my mechanics, my instincts, and what I’ve been working on all summer,” he said. “That’s going to be my deal going into this season.”
Rarely in sports do you get mulligans, but Jones is about to get one this season. The Mount Vernon, N.Y., resident was expected to be one of the top returning players in America’s No. 1 basketball conference last year, but it didn’t happen, and Jones now has the benefit of going through the process once again in 2012 a year older and a year wiser.
“The biggest thing is not getting frustrated when things don’t go your way and things don’t go as planned,” he said. “Things are not going to go as planned all of the time; this year I might not have the games that I want to have, or set out to have, but I just have to keep on playing and play through everything.
“There were times when I got down on myself last year and I just felt a whole bunch of pressure on me, but I’m going to be better prepared for it this year. This is my last year so it’s all or nothing right now.”
Jones is one of only three guys with any extensive playing experience returning in a Mountaineer program that has enjoyed unprecedented success under fifth-year coach Bob Huggins. West Virginia has made NCAA tournament trips in each of Kevin’s three seasons here, including a Big East tournament title and a Final Four appearance during his sophomore year in 2010.
“Nobody really expected them to do what they did and what they accomplished,” explained Jones of UConn’s 2011 NCAA title run. “I’m not saying we will have that success, but we will use that as an example of where we want to be. I feel like our team could do something similar if things go right.”
The Mountaineers do have Jones and senior guard Truck Bryant, the first pair of returning 1,000-point scorers in school history, 6-foot-9 man-child Deniz Kilicli, who has tantalized Mountaineer hoop fans the last two seasons with his immense potential; and then there is 6-foot-10 repeat freshman Kevin Noreen, a player those close to the program says possesses the moxie of a 10-year NBA vet. The one-time Boston College recruit played effectively in his seven brief appearances before injuring his knee, and everyone is anxious to see how he performs this year with his newly repaired wheel.
And then there is a nationally-ranked recruiting class that has everyone pumped up, the players included. Jones is particularly impressed with lanky wings Keaton Miles and Tommie McCune, both possessing above-the-rim games.
“I really like their style of basketball,” Jones said. “They are really athletic and they’re really aggressive and they’re not shying away from competition. I’m not saying the other freshmen are, but those are the two that really stand out to me.”
With the new athleticism that has been injected into the program, Jones envisions a more up-tempo style this year with extended defenses, trapping, and maybe even some full-court pressure. That is what Huggins’ Cincinnati teams were known for when the Bearcats owned Conference USA in the late 1990s.
“I just expect to see this year being totally different,” Jones said. “I think we’re going to have a lot of energy. I think we’re going to be more of a transition team this year, we are going to be able to get up and down the floor, and we didn’t have that last year. We had to kind of grind out games and get points where I don’t think we’ll have to do that as much this year.”
Jones also likes the fact that the newcomers will get an opportunity to get 10 practices under their belts before the team makes its European trip in late August. That will give them an opportunity to learn the system, learn the other players, and most importantly, learn Bob Huggins.
“The freshmen are coming in with a blank mind and we just have to show them how to work and what Coach Huggins expects from everybody (team defense, anyone?). I think once that is established, and everybody is playing their part, we have tremendous upside,” Jones said.
So much upside, perhaps, that West Virginia can turn the Big East upside down, just like Connecticut did last year.
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