By Bob Hertzel
For the Times West Virginian
Let’s admit it, back there around New Year’s, in whatever sober moments you may have had between December 29, when West Virginia lost a home game to St. John’s, and New Year’s night, when the local heroes dropped a decision at Marquette, we were all thinking the same thing.
And it wasn’t pretty.
Oh-and-two in the Big East, four losses in the season’s first 12 games, no Da’Sean Butler, no Devin Ebanks, no Noah Cottrill … the last thing on all of our minds was the NCAA. Considering that the Big East was being called the toughest conference in the history of college athletics, it looked like it would be a long, hard winter.
Things didn’t get any better when the Mountaineers went down to Charleston and lost to Marshall. You might remember it. That was when your closest friends hid all the sharp objects from you, just in case.
By that time, you might recall, Casey Mitchell couldn’t throw a ball in the Mon River while standing in the middle of the Star City Bridge, Truck Bryant was beginning a streak of 12 games where he never scored more than three field goals and was making only 22.6 percent of the shots he was taking, while Kevin Jones was trying to discover who he was and how he could perform as a team leader.
If you are really honest with yourself you will admit that no matter how true a Mountaineer fan you were, you were worried … really worried.
The truth is, you weren’t alone. The Mountaineers were worried, too.
Jones, for example, admitted just the other day, right after the Mountaineer Miracle in Morgantown when they wiped out a five-point Louisville lead with 18 seconds to play and pulled out an incredible victory, that most of his early and mid-season problems were the result of worry.
In that Louisville game he rang up a third straight double-double, this one of mammoth proportions with 25 points and 16 rebounds.
“I guess you would say I’m turning the corner in my game,” Jones said.
And how is he managing to do that? By taking the musical advice of Bobby McFerrin from back in 1988: “Don’t Worry, be happy.”
“I’m starting to play worry-free and relaxed,” Jones explained. “I take a deep breath now before I go out there. I played so tense early in the year. I’m learning to relax and not take everything so serious.”
All of a sudden, it’s a kid’s game again for him and he’s not thinking about having to rebound like Wellington Smith, play defense like Devin Ebanks and score like Da’Sean Butler.
He just has to play like Kevin Jones.
“I’m smiling out there on the court. That’s when I’m at my best, when I’m smiling out there and having fun,” he said.
This may be one of those chicken and the egg things. You know, is he playing well because he’s smiling and having fun or is he smiling and having fun because he’s playing well?
Then again, does it matter?
The fact is that WVU is challenged when it comes to rebounding if Jones isn’t pulling down around 10 or more and they aren’t going to score a lot if he isn’t getting some inside points, especially off offensive rebounds.
All season Coach Bob Huggins has been trying to get Jones to go back to being himself but it’s funny with athletes, especially young ones. A coach can teach them a lot of things, but he can’t teach them how to react to what they perceive as pressure and only when they stumble upon the answer themselves can they get their games cranked up.
Things were building on Jones earlier this season … not because he wasn’t producing. Instead, it was because he wasn’t being what he thought he had to be rather than being what he was.
“I think it was more frustrating than disappointing because I know I can hit the shots,” he said. “I hit them in practice. I’ve been working out before and after practice. I’ve been correcting my form and I’ve been feeling better.
“I’m also being more aggressive on the offensive glass,” Jones continued. “When I rebound well usually have a good game. I try to hit the offensive glass as hard as possible.”
The result is that he’s playing better and the team is coming along with him.
“Earlier [the Louisville comeback] would not have happened because we were not the same team. This team has taken it another level up. We’ve matured playing together. We’re playing like a family now. I think we’re playing our best basketball now,” Jones said.
The timing for that could not be better.
E-mail Bob Hertzel at firstname.lastname@example.org.