Jones still trying to enjoy tournament experience

Verdell Jones allowed himself to enjoy the moment itself as though nothing had changed. To cherish it just as he said he would in the days before his final game at Assembly Hall.

When Indiana’s name was called as the No. 4 seed in the South Region of the NCAA Tournament, the senior guard popped out of his chair, clapping and hollering like the rest of his teammates, embracing each of them and taking in the glow of one of the most meaningful moments to date in Indiana’s rise from the ashes.

But even as he was weaving among teammates and making sure he hugged every single one of them, it was painfully apparent that things had very much changed. Jones wasn’t so much limping as slowly swinging his right leg, making sure not to bend the knee with the torn anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) that had ended his career and made certain that he will not play in the only NCAA Tournament of his career.

“It was very bittersweet,” Jones said. “It was very bittersweet. This is a moment I’ve been waiting for since I came to IU. Even though I got to enjoy it with my team, it’s kind of a bitter time, because I won’t be able to actually participate when the games start. I’m happy for this team. They’ve been through just as much as I have. I’m happy for us, and hopefully we can do big things.”

Of course, they haven’t been through quite as much as he has, because they didn’t see their dreams slip away days before they would be realized.

The Hoosiers had reached NCAA Tournament lock status long before the Big Ten Tournament, but they still had designs on a deep run in that tournament. Jones, however, didn’t make it through the first half of the first game. With 5:45 left to go in Thursday’s game against Penn State, he was driving across the court and tried to jump-stop near the foul-line. He didn’t make any contact with another player, but his right knee slipped and buckled and Jones was instantly writhing on the floor in agony.

“Right when it happened, I knew it wasn’t going to be good,” Jones said. “I think it didn’t set in until Dr. (Steve) Ahlfeld came back in and said, ‘It’s an ACL, you’re done.’ Hearing those words is just tough. My parents were there. It was one of the toughest times. They were going to take me (for an MRI) right after it happened, but I wanted to wait and watch the game. I stayed in the locker room and watched the game. The guys came in and we all prayed and I drove to St. Francis in Carmel. and got the MRI, and 20 minutes later they came out and told me what it was.”

The cruel fate that Jones suffered was the only thing that dampened the spirits a bit during Sunday’s celebration. He’s the most prominent member of a  five-man senior class that joined the program at its lowest point following the Kelvin Sampson recruiting sanctions and subsequent roster purge. His role as a scorer was somewhat reduced this season as he averaged 7.5 points per game but he still finishes his career as the No. 23 all-time leading scorer in Indiana history with 1,347 points and he was second on the team in assists this year with 3.2 per game.

“It’s heart-wrenching,” senior guard Kory Barnett said. “It’s like nothing else you could ever experience. Especially for a kid like that who’s so tough. … He’s stronger than I could ever be through this.”

Said Indiana coach Tom Crean: “There is no way, even with the way so many guys have played, that we are sitting here today without the contributions he has made. Certainly over his career, but also when you look at the season he has had.”

But that’s not to say that they don’t believe they can advance in the tournament without him.

The Hoosiers have won without Jones before. When he suffered a bruise shoulder in a Feb. 1 game at Michigan, the Hoosiers put a bit more of a workload on junior point guard Jordan Hulls, but more significantly expanded the ball-handling role of sophomore guard Victor Oladipo and the minutes of freshman guard Remy Abell. The move worked wonders for Oladipo, who scored 23 points in a win over Purdue on Feb. 4 and then scored in double figures in each of the next six games.

Abell, meanwhile, scored 13 points in the win over Purdue, hitting a 3-pointer that effectively sealed the victory. He didn’t play more than seven minutes in a game until Jones was hurt, but he proved he can defend, shoot and handle the basketball and gained confidence from the Purdue game.

“I think I just have to be versatile on the defensive end,” Abell said. “I think my defense will open up my offense and on offense, just be aggressive off the pick and roll and stuff like that. Look to find teammates and look to get to the basket. … I feel prepared because it happened at the early part of the year at midseason. I think I’ll be ready.”
And even though Jones isn’t playing, that doesn’t mean he won’t be there. He is delaying his surgery so he can travel, and is planning to provide as much leadership off the bench as he did on the floor.

“I’m still going in as one of the players, as one of those guys,” Jones said. “I love these dudes and I’m gonna do whatever it takes for us to keep winning.”

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