PHILIP OCHS / THE EAGLE
Quietly sipping from a Big Gulp and reading the Monday newspaper, Head Coach Jeff Jones looked anything but the fiery leader of the AU men’s basketball program.
His usually furrowed brow was relaxed; the intensity of his eyes was hidden by a pair of reading glasses and the yelling was replaced by reflective thoughts. Though the previous season was disappointing for his squad, Jones was still able to take away many positives.
“When you look at our season, the bottom line is that we were 11-20, and there’s no way that we’re happy with 11-20,” Jones said. “But at the end of the season, I think you really could see signs of progress and throughout the course of the year, I think we did improve.”
While Jones said some losses were inexcusable, AU’s youth this past year is something that cannot be easily forgotten. The Eagles began the season as the fifth youngest team in all of Division I men’s basketball. As a whole, the program lost 81 percent of its minutes from last year and 84 percent of its scoring. Stephen Lumpkins and Nick Hendra were the only two returning players who played any role on last year’s team.
“We had guys that, prior to this season, really had not played at the collegiate level — even the sophomores,” Jones said.
This was one of the reasons that AU struggled early in the season. After capturing back-to-back Patriot League titles in the past two years, the program had enormous expectations thrust upon it. AU went 0-7 to begin the season before beating Howard University, another team without a win at the time.
“We just weren’t very good at the beginning of the year,” Jones said. “We had guys that didn’t know what college basketball was about, and we had guys that were playing positions that they’d never played before, so we were very much just feeling our way.”
Even with the addition of First-Team All-Patriot League player Vlad Moldoveanu in December, AU was unable to escape its non-conference slump. The Romanian star led AU to an upset over Big East opponent DePaul University, but the Eagles still limped to a 4-13 finish in non-conference play.
Losses to the likes of University of Maryland-Baltimore County (4-26) and Albany (7-25) were certainly disappointing to a fan base so accustomed to success, but many of the losses were not as bad as they may appear. Nearly half of AU’s non-conference losses were by seven points or less and four more were what Jones called “guarantee games” — games where AU travels to a major school like University of Florida and is expected to lose.
“If we wanted to, we could schedule a 20-win season here,” Jones said. “But that’s not going to do you any good. It might look good, but when it comes to tournament time you’re not going to be tested. It’s just kind of a façade.”
Luckily for the Eagles, the team put their non-conference woes behind them and experienced a bit more success in the Patriot League. AU finished 7-7 in the conference and swept two of the top five teams in the league. According to Jones, something clicked.
“At some point in the middle of the Patriot League season, I thought we finally figured out, ‘Hey, if we play this way, we can give ourselves a chance,’” he said. “The game at Navy was big because that was the first time all year that we won a game when we didn’t play really well. We were able to overcome things that went against us, and that was a sign that we had learned and become a better basketball team.”
The double-overtime victory Jones cited marked the beginning of a three-game win streak that would extend into the Patriot League tournament. A third win over the Midshipmen pushed AU into the Patriot League Semifinals, where the Eagles fell to the eventual Patriot League Champion Lehigh University.
“Lehigh clearly was the best and most talented team in the Patriot League,” Jones said. “But the way we lost to them was disappointing because I don’t think we competed the way we were capable of competing.”
This past season marked the worst season for AU men’s basketball since Jones became head coach in 2000. Even so, he remains optimistic about the program and the heights to which it will soar.
“This was clearly our worst year,” Jones said. “But we were still able to finish in the top four and win a Patriot League game. I think that really says something about where we are as a program.”
Jones was very careful to define his program as a constant work in progress, ensuring that AU is competitive every year. He used four former AU stars as an example of how a work in progress can turn into success.
“When Derrick Mercer, Garrison Carr, Brian Gilmore and Jordan Nichols were freshmen, we had a losing season overall,” Jones said. “But those guys gained an awful lot of experience. It doesn’t happen overnight, but if you continue working at it then you’ve got a chance. I think that’s exactly where we are.”
There is a real chance for the team to win next year, Jones said. However, there is no success without hard work behind it. For this reason, Jones expects the upcoming offseason to be the most difficult he has faced as a coach.
“It’s going to be the hardest [offseason] because we need it,” Jones said. “The players understand that, and they’re anxious to improve. In order for us to be a championship-caliber team, we need to take a big step.”
But no matter what the upcoming season may bring, Jones is able to find fulfillment in something other than results.
“It’s always the process,” Jones said. “Winning is fun, but for me it’s always more of a relief. What’s really fun for me as a coach is watching it all happen.”
While Jones has shown his more reflective side since the loss to Lehigh, expect the same old fiery coach to come out of hibernation next winter. Until then, he’s keeping busy as a guest analyst on CBS College Sports during the NCAA Tournament. He believes that the University of Kentucky will go all the way, though he was careful to reiterate he doesn’t like it.
“I would not say that I like Kentucky because I grew up in the state of Kentucky,” Jones said. “But I do think the odds are overwhelmingly in their favor.”
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