After defying expectations last season, the Men’s basketball team wants to be the first repeat Patriot League champions since the Eagles captured back-to-back Patriot League championships in 2008 and 2009.
One of the unsung heroes on the team is sophomore Charlie Jones. Jones is a walk-on, which means that he does not receive an athletic scholarship. He’s a 6’4 guard/forward who didn’t have a single Division I offer on the table before coming to play at AU.
“Early in my senior year I had a Division I offer from UMBC, but they later withdrew the offer” Jones said. “Then it was between Randolph Macon, a great Division III program in Virginia, and Randolph College, another solid DIII program.”
It was down to those two schools for Jones, but it all changed for him when a scout came to his high school’s practice to watch some of his teammates who were Division I prospects.
“He had done some scouting for the Indiana Pacers in the NBA, and he had some sort of relationship with Kieran Donahue, an assistant under [former] AU basketball head coach Jeff Jones,” Jones said. “I talked to him and he liked my game, but then he announced that he was leaving for Old Dominion and that threw everything off kilter.”
Current head coach Mike Brennan took over the AU team after a disastrous 10-20 season. Brennan had seen Jones play when he was scouting players before taking over the head coach position at AU.
“I liked both Randolph and Randolph Macon, but I wanted to wait for AU because I felt that it was a good place for me. I liked the campus and I thought I could play here.”
A week or two after AU formally announced the hire of Brennan, he gave Jones a call.
“He called me and told me that he really wanted me to be a part of the program, so I decided to go for it,” Jones said.
Jones’ leap of faith has paid off for not only himself but for Brennan and the entirety of the program. He came off the bench his freshman, a rarity because Brennan has historically used his bench sparsely. He averaged 2.2 points and 1.8 rebounds in 13.4 minutes of play last year while playing in 26 games, starting two of them.
This year Jones has started all but two of the 24 games played. He’s improved his averages to 7.8 points, 3.6 rebounds and two assists in about 32 minutes a game.
Jones’ numbers don’t quite give him the praise that he deserves. In last year’s Patriot League semifinal against Holy Cross, the Eagles were down by 10 points. Enter Jones, who hit a three, a layup and blocked a shot in that order to spark the Eagles to a 20-2 run and the Patriot League championship.
That was Jones’ breakout moment, and since then he has capitalized on each opportunity that he has been given. Practically forced into the starting lineup early in the year due to injuries to senior center Kevin Panzer, senior forward Kyle Kager and junior center Zach Elcano. He has been a mainstay ever since. This year, Jones greatly improved his scoring abilities and attributes part of this to Brennan and his teammates as well as the work that he put in in the offseason.
“After last season, I knew what I had to improve on, and I knew what Coach Brennan wanted me to improve on," Jones said. "There was stuff that I had to improve on with our system and I knew I had to get better as a player.”
Jones has had a handful of good scoring games this season, including 16 points against La Salle University and a team-high 17 points against Patriot League foe Bucknell University.
Brennan has always had high praise for Jones, comparing him to the Wizard’s Otto Porter in an article in the Baltimore Sun. After his great performance against La Salle, Brennan had high praise for his sophomore forward.
"Charlie always brings a big effort and he had to do that tonight,” Brennan said. “He provides so many intangibles to us, so I was happy to see him contribute offensively.”
Jones attributes most of his success to his work ethic, especially in practice.
“I believe how you practice is how you play,” Jones said. “For a guy like me, I can’t just turn it on. I always have to be dialed in. If I’m not playing hard then I’m not really worth much.”
Despite all of the adversity that Jones has already faced in his basketball career, he faces adversity on the court every single night because he often guards somebody bigger and stronger than him.
“It definitely has its disadvantages,” Jones said. “But I use what I can to my advantage, especially my quickness to bother them and ultimately force a tough shot. And on the offensive end, those bigger, slower guys have to chase me around on the perimeter.”
The Eagles Feb. 7 game versus division foe Colgate resulted in a tough 59-43 loss. Despite the loss, Jones is optimistic about his team’s chances.
“We know when we step up on the floor that every game is going to be a battle, and if you don’t come ready to play you’ll get beat,” Jones said. “But if we play how we’re capable of playing, than we can beat anybody in the league.”