Freshman Jones sparks team down stretch
Freshman J.T. Jones, from Sikeston, Missouri, wanted to stay close to home after high school and continue to play the game of basketball.
Jones, who is listed as 6-foot-3, has found his place on the Southeast Missouri State men's basketball team, even if he didn't think he'd see a lot of playing time right away.
A normal 6-foot-3 basketball player is undersized to play the post at the Division I level, but Jones doesn't let the big bruisers he's faced intimidate him.
Just watch him play, and see how he bodies up to the 6-foot-7 to 7-foot power forwards on other teams, and it is evident that Jones plays with a tremendous amount of heart and passion.
Southeast coach Dickey Nutt said that is something that can't be taught.
"He's undersized, but his heart is so big, and he's physical," Nutt said. "He holds his own against the bigger guys because of his toughness. He's undersized, but definitely not in the heart area. He has a tremendous heart, and all he wants to do is please his coach."
Nutt added that Jones doesn't fill a stat sheet, but the energy he brings to his teammates and the game is priceless.
"That's what you love about J.T. Jones," Nutt said.
Jones played football and basketball before high school but turned his focus to basketball during his freshman year of high school. That just happened to be the same year that the Bulldogs went undefeated on their way to a state championship.
Jones said he didn't see a lot of playing time on that undefeated team, but he learned a lot from being a part of that special run.
"It was a good experience being around all those older guys," Jones said. "Just knowing how to win, just knowing what to do to become an undefeated team. Being under their wings, them showing me the right way and doing the right things all the time."
At the beginning of this season, Jones had a similar role. But then with two minutes left in the first half against Eastern Illinois on Feb. 7, Nutt pointed at Jones and put him in the game.
"At first, I was kind of shocked," Jones said about getting his number called. "He said, 'J.T., you need to get in there,' and I just sat there for a second. But then he told me to hurry up and get in there, and I was like, 'OK,' and then I got in there and I just wanted to do whatever I could to just help win the game."
Jones finished the first half on the floor, and then sat after halftime until the 9:23 mark. With the Redhawks down 10 at this point, Nutt turned once again to him.
"I looked down at the bench," Nutt said. "And I didn't have this pre-planned in my mind, it just came to me that there's one thing I know about J.T. Jones, is that he has about a 50-fan following from Sikeston every game. I knew that if I was to insert him, the fans would certainly try to energize our team.
"When he got up, I heard the entire section go crazy. He got in the game, and immediately, things started clicking."
Shortly after Jones entered the contest in the second half, Southeast rattled off a 19-2 run and ended up winning the game.
"At this point," Nutt said about beating EIU, "J.T. Jones saved our season."
"He was just out there with his energy, everybody fed off him," Nutt said.
Since that game, Jones has seen playing time that most people thought he wouldn't see early in the year.
"Every day in practice, he's showing us that he can play at this level," Nutt said.
Jones said early in the season, his focus was on working hard and doing everything possible to make the team better.
But since earning more meaningful playing time, Jones said he has worked harder than ever to make himself a better all around player.
"With me getting in the game, I just want to make sure my defense is always good and not worrying about scoring as much," Jones said. "Making sure I'm playing defense and doing all the little things just to get the win."
Jones said the biggest challenge transitioning to Division I was learning how to play the guard position.
"Having the ball in my hand a lot, making plays for other players, it has been hard, but I'm getting better as the season goes on," Jones said.
Jones' defensive-minded, blue-collar basketball has greatly impacted the Redhawks this season, and he, the coaching staff and his loyal following of fans hope that he can continue to produce for seasons to come.