Everyone’s preseason prognostications were based on the assumption Texas would have a two-headed backcourt attack in Courtney Ramey and Matt Coleman.
Nobody considered Andrew Jones. And for good reason.
It’s been 23 months to the day since Jones, once a dynamic scoring threat, suffered a fractured wrist injury. Weeks later, he was diagnosed with leukemia. The college basketball world kept turning, but the only person who refused to give up and go away was Jones himself.
On Tuesday, 665 days since UT announced Jones’ life-altering diagnosis, everything changed.
Looking every bit like someone making up for lost time, Jones poured in a career-high 20 points in 29 minutes in a 69-45 win over Northern Colorado at the Erwin Center. The 21-year-old beat back leukemia. Now, he’s winning at life.
“Andrew’s a great player. Of course you should be talking about him,” Ramey said. “But him being out for so long, people kind of forgot about him. So he’s gonna wake them up. And he’s going to help our team out a lot.”
Ramey posted his second career double-double with 16 points and 10 rebounds. Coleman had 10 points and six boards, too. The Longhorns’ new-look defense just suffocated the Bears on the perimeter. Northern Colorado went 2-for-21 from 3-point range and went 8 minutes, 59 seconds in the first half between field goals.
“You can see they really built off that NIT run from last year,” Northern Colorado coach Jeff Linder said.
But this was no garden-variety, season-opening win for the Horns (1-0). This was the night “AJ1” made a triumphant return in burnt orange and started a new phase of his athletic life.
“It was a great feeling just to get back out there officially, back with my teammates,” Jones said. “All the work we’ve been putting in this summer, I was glad to be able to just step out on that court with no restrictions.”
When Jones first checked in with 13:50 left in the first half, barely anyone noticed. That alone was a win, as Jones has simply wanted to be treated like everyone else. But it caused a stir when Jones drew a charge, the way he pumped his fists in excitement.
His little Euro step move through the lane for his first bucket got the blood pumping. Once Jones hit a layup, then back-to-back 3-pointers in the second half, the hundreds in the stands were roaring.
Jones finished the night 8-for-13 overall and 4-for-5 shooting from 3-point range. He was the lone bright spot beyond the arc as Texas went 7-for-27 overall from long distance. Why some of the big men were firing away — Royce Hamm Jr., Brock Cunningham and Will Baker were 0-for-8 combined — was a total mystery.
“Honestly, I didn’t have any jitters or wasn’t nervous,” Jones said. “I did have a fear of where I didn’t know what to expect. But I talked to my parents and coaches, it was more about just trusting the work that we put in. Don’t worry about offense. Come in here focused on defense and just worry about team wins instead of individual plays.”
Texas coach Shaka Smart had said before Tuesday he expected Jones to play “significant” minutes this season. Smart said Jones had 20 points in one of UT’s two closed preseason scrimmages but didn’t do so well in the other scrimmage.
Now, having put a performance like this on the stat sheet, opposing coaches will be looking for more evidence that Jones can do it consistently.
Smart pointed out that Northern Colorado wanted to limit Febres’ looks. Nothing wrong with that. When properly plugged in, Febres is the electric hot plate that’ll burn anybody. He took only two 3-point attempts and finished with five points.
But what if coaches had to account for Febres and Jones night after night?
“If both of those two guys specifically can shoot the ball well from outside for our team,” Smart said, “then that really just opens up a lot.”
Smart is already tinkering with a four-guard lineup. The coach was also disappointed athletic sophomore Gerald Liddell couldn’t play against the Bears. Liddell was still in the team’s concussion protocol and was not cleared in time for tipoff. Chances are he’ll be available in Saturday’s road test at Purdue.
Ramey, Coleman, Febres, Jones and either Liddell or Jericho Sims make an interesting five-man lineup worth experimentation. That’s what non-conference is for, after all.
Having Jones as another legitimate scoring threat changes the dynamics considerably. After all, Texas is a program that’s lived on the razor’s edge throughout Smart’s tenure. The average UT game has been decided by 2.4 points in Smart’s four previous seasons.
Forget Jones’ health for now, because he’s sure over it. Jones can help these Longhorns now win.
“I mean, I can’t really say it was a surprise for me,” Ramey said. “You know, I knew what he can do, and he just went out there and did it. I’m just proud of him. I’m just hoping that he keeps to that consistent level like he said and at the end of the day, we just want to keep getting Texas wins.”
Contact Brian Davis at 512-445-3957. Email firstname.lastname@example.org.