Sometimes, Texas coach Shaka Smart can't help but to drop a knee and scan.
"And I get down on one knee because I like that vantage point, just kind of watching for a little bit and I'm like, this is just unbelievable," Smart told me Wednesday.
He's reflecting on the moments that catch him every so often when he watches Andrew Jones. The Texas redshirt junior's comeback journey from leukemia three years ago has become among the more defining, uplifting stories in college basketball.
Smart is of two minds when he's on one knee. There he is, watching this walking testament of motivation playing at an all-Big 12 level. But the coach also remembers all those days he'd drive down from Austin to Houston, visit Jones in the hospital and see more weight melting off him with each subsequent visit. It might have been 40 pounds gone at Jones' weakest point. Recently, one of the family's closest friends texted Smart a picture from 2018. It shows Jones doing a basic balancing exercise. One of his willowy legs hangs in the air. Smart is spotting Jones, who has numerous tubes attached to him, all of them linked to a metal IV pole.
"He's just so thin," Smart said.
And then Smart looks at a picture from this past weekend. Jones with ripped muscles, confident shooting form, a man who has made it all the way back.
It's been a long way back, but it's not as though Jones has belatedly sprung to action this season. Texas was a 19-win team last season and Jones played in every game, logging big minutes and production as important as anyone else on the roster.
"He contributed to the team mightily, we won five games in a row near the end of the season and was the leading scorer on the team in that stretch," Smart said. "He's doing better and better, which is awesome. I've not been associated with a more uplifting story than this since I've been playing or coaching, so it's great, it's awesome, but it's also not -- for him -- he's not looking in the rearview."
Thinking back to more than two years ago, it's a wonder. There was a time when Jones was receiving periodic treatments where he'd get a peripherally inserted central catheter (known as a "PICC line") into his arm that would be attached to a bag with chemotherapy treatments. He wore the bag around his waist like a fanny pack. For months it was part of his daily appearance.
"For most people that would severely limit what you'd be able to do basketball-wise or in the weight room or physically in general," Smart said. "But for him he was so steadfast in his insistence that he was going to train just like everyone else."
Jones would lift weights, keep up with light individual skill training and even played live basketball with the PICC line in his arm. He was determined to continue rehab, but also to be around basketball as much as he could physically handle it in an effort to better his mental health. His primary doctor endorsed this approach and encouraged him to do whatever he could truthfully tolerate.
"At first it was like, man, you can shoot, but are you going to be able to play live?" Smart said. "Then all of a sudden we'd walk in the gym and he'd be playing one-on-one with one of his teammates. … It got to the point where he's regularly, in the middle of everything we're doing, live, with that thing in his arm with a sleeve over it. That was probably the best visual representation of, man, this guy is not going to be stopped and he's made of some different stuff."
Jones is an inspiration. Smart described him as a deep-thinking person who's invested in making the world around him better. Jones and his dad have put so much sweat equity and time into a grassroots basketball team that is giving back and making opportunities for young players in the greater Dallas area. But as you see him do what he's doing, know that the man is always looking forward. Yes, he's been willing to tell his story to inspire others. But he's not relying on the past for stimulus. He'd like to leave the leukemia behind him forever, and that's understandable.
The story still carries on, but Jones doesn't want it to be what's defining him, and we should respect that.
"As you can imagine everyone wants to talk to him, there was just this three-year anniversary when we told the team," Smart said. "But when you go through something like this, almost every day's an anniversary. There's the anniversary of when you were diagnosed, of when he moved hospitals, and a lot of those memories are painful."
So this is a story about a man who has become an idol locally, even nationally, but also continues to push forward. He's living for now because this is what he envisioned four years ago, as a five-star prospect. Jones hoped to make Texas as good as it's been in more than a decade. This season's team has that shot.
This is Smart's best squad since he got the job in 2015. But Jones has been putting in the work and has long since proved himself. When you watch him, know that he's been a major factor for well over a year at this point. This story turned good the day Jones had his final chemotherapy treatment in 2019, and it became great as soon as he returned to play.
It went to another level with that winner against West Virginia.
"Personally, it just feels great just to be out here, doing the things that I love every day, being able to play basketball with all my friends and my teammates," Jones said after making the winning shot at West Virginia on the three-year anniversary of his teammates finding out Jones was diagnosed. "I just put all the glory to God for allowing me to be in a position to be healthy, alive and being able to play a high-level brand of basketball. So I'm appreciative of every opportunity, of each day, and I try to make the best of it."
Now he's vital to this team and is one of the best players in the Big 12. Texas is not a top-10 team without him. He put up 18 points in the first half against Texas Tech on Wednesday, in a game UT ultimately lost by two on a late shot by TTU's Mac McClung. Those defeats are frustrating, but Jones' very presence signifies leadership. Texas should will be fine because Jones sets the example. His story deserves to be among the most commonly told in the sport this season, but when we do it, let's remember to talk about where he's going just as much as where he once was. That's how Andrew Jones got to where he is right now.
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The last time so many blue bloods missed NCAAs
High-profile programs coached by Hall of Famers are struggling more than usual this season. Kentucky is 4-7 and will need divine intervention to make the NCAA tourney. Duke is 5-3 and sits at No. 96 in the NET. Michigan State is 85th in the NET and has an 0-3 record vs. Quad 1. North Carolina was putrid last season and currently claims a 1-3 Quad 1 record with a NET ranking of 53. Indiana is a respectable 8-5, but in a tough Big Ten and with just one Quad 1 win so far, who knows? And Arizona, which has been a top-two program out West over the past 30 seasons, is on a self-imposed postseason ban.
You might be wondering when was the last time an NCAA Tournament happened without, say, Duke, Kentucky and Michigan State? Or one without Duke and North Carolina? Or one without Indiana, Arizona, Duke and Kentucky? The big one: When's the last time all six of these prestigious programs missed the NCAAs in the same year? Here are the most recent instances when at least three of these schools didn't dance. Every tournament since 1984 has had at least four of the six schools above.
The last time we didn't have an NCAA Tournament with ...
• Arizona, Duke and Michigan State: 1983
• Arizona, Kentucky and Indiana: 1979
• Duke, Indiana and Michigan State: 1977
• Duke, Kentucky and Michigan State: 1976
• Arizona, Duke, Indiana, Kentucky, North Carolina and Michigan State/any other combination: 1974.
So what about that 1974 tournament? It was the last one to feature fewer than 32 teams (there were 25) and schools were not seeded. NC State won the championship that year over Marquette. Kansas and UCLA also made the Final Four.
The only other NCAA Tournaments without all six: 1939, 1943, 1944, 1947, 1950, 1965.
The years without five of the six since 1960: 1960 (only Duke), 1961 (only Kentucky), 1962 (only Kentucky), 1963 (only Duke), 1970 (only Kentucky), 1971 (only Kentucky).
Feel free to reference back to this come March, because while I highly doubt all half-dozen teams miss out, I think the chances are high at least three don't get there.
UC Davis hopes to end 55-day playing drought
Meet the team that hasn't had a single positive test but nevertheless still hasn't played a game in more than seven weeks: UC Davis.
The Aggies have been inactive due to mandates from health officials in California's Yolo County, which sits just outside Sacramento. UC Davis is the only Division-I school in Yolo County, meaning it's the only men's basketball program put in this situation. In early December, the county's health director, Aimee Sisson, banned sports (among other activities) and furthermore didn't even allow UC Davis or any other team to leave the county to play sports outside those borders.
So Jim Les' team was stuck. Unlike nearby Santa Clara County, which saw Stanford, Santa Clara and San Jose State all flee that county and temporarily relocate in an effort to continue their seasons, UC Davis had nowhere to go and no one to play. It was also barred for nearly three weeks from practicing. The move was a pre-emptive strike by the county to try and get ahead of spiking case counts that were doomed to get worse. Health officials wanted no undue risk.
"It seemed really awkward and different to be watching games on TV and all these teams competing and us not competing," Les told me. "That left all of us with an empty feeling."
But Les was patient and understanding the whole time. Sure, the team was frustrated -- but it wasn't outraged. It was not able to practice initially; the team lifted weights and did conditioning outside in the cooling northern California climate.
"We want to put in perspective," Les said. "Families are losing loved ones, people's businesses are impacted and there's so much fallout from the virus and we don't want the focus to be on us and not playing basketball. Though we're disappointed, our first and foremost goal as coaches is to keep these young men healthy. And if we can do that and prevent any positive tests, that's a big win."
Health officials cleared UC Davis for practice shortly before Christmas. Every practice requires every person to always have masks on, and it's not yet known if that will continue to be the case for UC Davis games. More good news arrived Wednesday, when the no-sports mandate in Yolo County was lifted, enabling the Aggies to resume their season. They're scheduled to play their next game on Jan. 22 at UC San Diego. If that game is played, it will mark 55 days since their last Division I game on Nov. 28.
The team's going to do what it can to make up for lost time. Les joked that his players have had enough of him -- it's time to get games in as often as possible and as safely as possible. So in the Mondays or Tuesday to come, UC Davis will try its best to schedule a couple of the 10 D-I schools within 190 miles of its campus with eight of those schools being less than 110 miles away.
"They're competitors, they want to play and they want to get back on the floor and in my opinion they've earned it," Les said. "We feel very fortunate. I wasn't sure we were going to get to play this early."
Each week I highlight reader questions, so find me on Twitter and @ me with whatever you'd like answered.
Unfortunately, I did recently/defiantly say Wisconsin was better than Michigan. And, never being one to run from my misfires, we addressed this an amusing way on the most recent episode. If you're not already subscribed, head over to Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Google, Stitcher -- or whatever your preferred pod provider is -- and hop on board. I promise you'll enjoy college hoops season that much more if you're listening to us talk about it three times per week.
Maybe it’s poor reading comprehension at 4am (we sleep in May) but did you say anything about using a pure S-curve?— HoopsfanAB (@ydfished) January 12, 2021
If you missed it but want to have some fun: I took a stab at how I think the NCAA will schedule out the entire NCAA Tournament. This comes after we learned what many of the COVID-19 protocols will be for teams that make it to March Madness. So, this gent is asking about whether or not the selection committee will opt to bracket the field in a true S-curve (strongest team plays the weakest and snake through matchups that way) since geography won't force tinkering. I think that will be the goal, but remember that with the Big Ten likely to send 10 or 11 teams, some movement will be inevitable. I would expect clarity on this front by mid-February.
This question obviously being asked in the spirit of the College Football Playoff just wrapping up. Thankfully college hoops doesn't operate this way. But if you're asking if college basketball only had a four-team tournament but still kept the same game inventory, meaning 30-ish results for all teams, I ran the past 20 years worth of NCAA Tournament data and only included the four teams that got No. 1 seeds each season. It's impossible to know who would have won each of these three-game mini tournaments each year, but the more appearances, the higher the chance. If we're only taking four teams, then the four teams are obviously the top seeds. There have been 80 handed out over the past 20 tournaments, with more than 40 schools getting a 1. But I reduced it to those with at least three No. 1 bids to give you an idea of what programs would be the most dominant in that span.
It's going to take conference commissioners laying down the law, and that's just not going to happen pre-NCAA Tournament. College basketball coaches are as bad with consistent mask-wearing during competition as any other sport. It's been evident since the first day of the season. I asked Rachel Lattner, a health care professional who helped oversee the WNBA's bubble and Mohegan Sun's Bubbleville earlier this season, about this.
"That comes to personal responsibility," she said. "As much as you can wear a mask, that is beneficial in any sense. The coaches, and some schools this is where the varying in protocols and schools system, their leadership changes from team to team. Some schools are super strict on it. Other schools, they're more lax on it, or have a bit more flexibility. But coaches really need to think about, not just the issue of close contacts and people getting the virus and needing to isolate, but also athletes are at risk because the virus can affect their heart cells, their heart receptors. We want to make sure that if a player were to get it, we're allowing them time to recover and really connecting them with the right healthcare professionals to make sure that they're healthy and safe to go back and play. But we want to prevent them from having any issues."
In short: Coaches should be wearing masks and complying as much as possible. It's the best, safest way to do this in what's obviously a season prone to reasonable criticism, given this season is only possible because of unpaid amateur athletes who feel compelled to play amid the dark backdrop of a deadly pandemic that's killed more than 400,000 Americans.
- Loyola Chicago's Cameron Krutwig is an old soul with an old-school game, and his career accomplishment this week put him with the all-time great in the history of the Missouri Valley. Krutwig has eclipsed 1,500 points, 800 rebounds and 300 assists. The only other MVC players to ever hit those marks are legends: Larry Bird, Hersey Hawkins and Oscar Robertson.
- Duke's loss at Virginia Tech on Tuesday means there's a good chance it's not ranked next week. UNC is unlikely to jump into the AP Top 25, too. So come Monday, it should mark the first week since December 1982 that neither team is ranked. (H/T, Bryan Ives).
- Dennis Gates and Cleveland State are roaring. The Vikings are 8-0 in Horizon League play, the best start in school history. This is the same team that allowed a record-setting 40-0 run to Ohio in November and lost 101-46. Gates is a rising star in the coaching industry.
- Last week's Court Report highlighted Drake's 13-0 start. Then it went on COVID pause, and after losing zero games due to the coronavirus through the first seven weeks of the season, the Bulldogs have had five games pushed back and might not get a game in again until Jan. 30.
- Did Florida State wake up on Wednesday night? The Seminoles scored a flaming-hot 1.52 points per possession in their 105-73 win over NC State. UNC coming to town Saturday.
- Two weeks ago Northwestern had visions of making the NCAA Tournament when it started 3-0 in the league with wins over Michigan State, Indiana and Ohio State. Since then NU's lost four straight and is scheduled to face Iowa next, on Sunday.
- The NCAA on Monday
on enacting rules to empower college athletes to make money through name, image and likeness -- and to immediately transfer without having to sit a season. Both are expected to be voted into existence later this year, but it's not good news for the NCAA that federal lawmakers took notice of this, amid a historic second impeachment of Donald Trump in the aftermath of the storming of the Capitol, to remind the NCAA of what they intend to push through in the coming months. This is going to be a huge year, and potentially a crisis of existence for the century-old organization.