AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — Through each game since early January, win or lose, the Texas Longhorns have insisted teammate Andrew Jones has been with them every step of the way as they fought to return to the NCAA Tournament.
When it came time to see if their name would be called on Selection Sunday, the Longhorns dialed up Jones, who is in Houston for leukemia treatments, on a video conference call. They watched and listened together.
“He called it out before we did, maybe his TV was a couple of seconds ahead,” junior guard Kerwin Roach II said. “He’s so excited. He wanted to come shoot baskets with us before we leave.”
Jones was the emotional core in the Longhorns’ season-long struggle to get back to the tournament after missing last year. Close losses and a midseason slump had coach Shaka Smart facing some tough midseason questions about his third season at Texas. And in late February, the school benched shooting guard Eric Davis, Jr., after his name surfaced in a report that suggested he took $1,500 from an agent representative. School officials have said there’s no change on Davis’ status ahead of Friday’s tourney opener between the 10th-seeded Longhorns and No. 7 seed Nevada in Nashville, Tennessee.
“This has been, for us as a team, a season unlike any other,” Smart said. “A lot of twists and turns.”
Nothing was more wrenching than Jones’ diagnosis.
Jones’ father was paralyzed in a car accident when he was 7 years old — Jones was in the car but uninjured — and Jones considered turning pro after his freshman season last year. But he returned for what many expected to be a breakout sophomore season.
Jones never looked or felt himself early in the season. A fractured wrist sidelined him for several games and when he returned in late December, he complained of having little energy. He would take himself out of games and practice.
His leukemia diagnosis was announced Jan. 10. He had already been hospitalized to start treatment. That night, Texas got what would arguably be its biggest win of the season with an overtime victory over TCU that left Smart and several players in tears.
Even Smart questioned whether Texas got some divine help at the end when TCU missed a game-winning, wide open layup at the buzzer. Texas set up a fund-raising web page for the Jones family that has raised nearly $200,000. Jones, who is now in outpatient treatment, has tried to stay connected with the team and fans and provides regular social media updates with videos of him shooting basketballs or working out.
“He’s making such progress. It’s great to see such optimism in his face and his words,” Smart said.
On the court, Texas struggled to gain confidence or even post consecutive wins. While there was no indication he might be fired, Texas fans were getting unhappy with Smart’s lack of progress.
Last season’s last-place finish in the Big 12 demanded a change, and the Longhorns spent the final month of the season scrapping their way out of the league cellar with just enough wins to put together a tournament-worthy resume. The Longhorns still finished under .500 in the Big 12, but the league’s depth afforded Texas a late bid to the postseason that calmed the waters for now.
Davis got caught up in the allegations reported around a sweeping FBI investigation into corruption in college basketball. Texas has said little about the allegations surrounding Davis, but the school hasn’t moved off its position that he won’t play.
Losing Davis took one of his top scorers off the court. But Smart coaxed the Longhorns toward the late wins they absolutely had to have — over Oklahoma State, West Virginia and Iowa State — to save their season. Even those came with a huge hurdle to overcome: a sprained toe that kept freshman forward Mo Bamba on the bench.
Bamba, one of the top shot blockers in the country and a likely top NBA draft pick, said he’s ready to play Friday.
“There’s a standard here to at the very least make the tournament.” Smart said. “But at the same time, with the season we’ve been through, we should be really excited about making it … it’s a fresh start for everyone”