Following Marquette’s 76-59 loss to Notre Dame, coach Buzz Williams could have opened his post-game talk to his players with a handful of topics.
A stagnant offense held to 59 points on 39 percent shooting. Poor rotation on the perimeter, leading to 11 Notre Dame 3-pointers. Getting to the free throw line just 11 times, a season low. But instead, Williams chose to address sophomore forward Jamail Jones’ career afternoon.
“That was the first thing I said when I went in the locker room,” Williams said of Jones’ 19-minute, eight-point, three-rebound performance. “I think it says an unbelievable amount about who he is as a human being. To have not played any meaningful minutes during our previous seven-game winning streak, and for him to come in in the situation that he did, I think it says a lot about him.”
Seeing extended minutes due to Davante Gardner’s lingering knee sprain and Jamil Wilson’s early foul trouble, Jones came off the bench to give stability to a Golden Eagles’ front court that desperately needed it.
Starter Jamil Wilson picked up his second foul at the 15:10 mark of the first half, forcing Williams to go to his bench early. In the pre-game shootaround, Jones said Williams hinted that he could see extended minutes.
When his number was called, Jones was ready.
“Confidence is always a key, just always staying ready,” Jones said. “So I come into every game thinking I’m going to get a lot of minutes, so when it actually does happen I’m always ready.”
Ready he was in the first half, logging 11 minutes and holding his own as the Marquette version of a power forward, alongside Jae Crowder and, at times, even Juan Anderson.
Marquette outscored the Irish 8-2 in Jones’ first stretch of the game, spanning just over six minutes. The undersized Golden Eagles bent but did not break in the paint defensively, allowing three offensive rebounds but just the one layup, by Alex Dragicevich, during that stretch that put Marquette up by four.
Jones scored four points in the first half, equaling his combined point total from the past 15 games. Two of those points came on an explosive windmill dunk off the left baseline that ended a 9-0 Notre Dame run late in the first half.
When Wilson, who finished with six points and four rebounds in 21 minutes, picked up his third foul three minutes into the second half, Williams again summoned the 6-foot-6 Jones off the bench. Jones quickly responded with an offensive rebound and layup on his second possession of the half, wisely tipping the ball to himself off a Todd Mayo missed 3-pointer and finishing on the right side to pull Marquette within three, 37-34.
It wasn’t all positives for Jones, who missed two or three layups that could have pulled Marquette closer, but some rust was to be expected considering he had logged 26 combined minutes in the last 11 games.
Jones wouldn’t blame his missed opportunities on his lack of minutes entering the game, but said his increased court time today is the reason he continues to work hard each day.
“It’s always tough not playing,” Jones said. “But I have to keep staying positive and working hard every day. It’s going to pay off in the long run.”
Jones’ efforts did not propel Marquette to victory Saturday afternoon, but it could very well be another turning point for a forward stepping up in place of an injured player.
Chris Otule’s injury accelerated the production curve for Gardner, who responded with offensive consistency and improved rebounding numbers. When Gardner was targeted at Providence, Jamil Wilson responded with 16 points in the comeback win. And now, with Wilson battling foul trouble and Gardner out, Marquette leaned on Jones, and he responded.
Jones was the only Marquette player to finish with a positive +/- on Saturday (+1), compared with forwards Jamil Wilson (-18), Jae Crowder (-9) and Juan Anderson (-7).
Despite his frustration with sporadic, limited minutes, Jones has had a positive influence. His unmistakable smile and enthusiasm on the bench is just as important to Williams as the players who score points and make defensive stops. Saturday afternoon, Jones happened to be that guy, too.
There were few positives to take from Saturday afternoon’s debacle, but seeing Jones succeed off the bench in a tough environment was certainly one.
Fellow sophomore Vander Blue said Jones’ attitude and work ethic have remained positive, and it showed today.
“For him not playing at all this season, to come in and have the game he had today, that really showed his character and what he’s about,” Blue said. “He’s a great individual, one of my closest teammates, and no matter how much he plays he’s still the same person, works as hard every day in practice and he does the right things off the court.”