It looked bad when it happened, but you hoped it wasn’t. Even as cries of pain were the only sounds in an otherwise silent Bankers Life Fieldhouse you held out hope that it wasn’t that bad, but in the back of your mind you knew.
As I write this, Indiana is calling it a sprained knee, but it’s quite obvious that it’s worse than that. How often do you see a coach get emotional over a sprained knee?
During a postgame interview on Big 10 Network, Tom Crean couldn’t say his name without pausing to compose himself. He also teared up during his Indiana Radio Network interview. While nobody has said it yet, it is quite clear that the season of Verdell Jones III season is over, as is his career at Indiana, and I can’t think of a more tragic and unfair end.
Jones isn’t the best player in the history of Indiana basketball, he isn’t even the best player on the 2011-12 Indiana basketball team, but in the Hoosiers rebirth under Tom Crean he might be its most important player.
May 5, 2008 was my last full day in Bloomington after graduating the previous weekend, but that isn’t why it’s a day of significance. Despite having offers from Kentucky, Tennessee, and Minnesota, Verdell Jones III committed to Indiana. It was the first recruiting coup for Tom Crean, who was a month into a job that was going to be tougher than anyone thought. It was a rocky first month for the former Marquette coach, who was going to have to start a program from scratch, but that commitment gave us hope.
Jones was amongst Indiana’s top two scorers in each of his first three seasons, but the Hoosiers never won more than 12 games, and even worse, could never win more than three conference games. That changed this year, and while Jones was having his worst season in Bloomington, he helped lay the foundation that has allowed it happen.
His numbers were down across the board, he dealt with a shoulder injury, he was vilified by fans, and eventually taken out of the starting lineup. Despite that, he had his moments during his senior season, and they came in IU’s biggest wins, including setting up the Hoosier’s most important jumper since Keith Smart in 1987. Now as Indiana gets ready to play its first meaningful March games in the four season Crean era it will do so without one of the guys who went through the misery of the first three. That’s what makes it so cruel.
On Thursday, when Indiana beat Penn State to win its first Big 10 Tournament game since 2006 Jones didn’t get to enjoy it. He wasn’t there as it ended. Next week when the Hoosiers get ready to play in the NCAA Tournament, Jones will be sitting on the bench. It shows how unfair the world can be. Years of hard work, years of sacrifice, years of losing. You go through all that with the goal of playing after the first week of March, but because of a freak play that happened after Jordan Hulls picked up his second foul, Verdell Jones III won’t get to reap the rewards.
Two years at Reliant Stadium, I sat about 10 feet away from where Purdue took the steps onto the floor during the South Regional. Robbie Hummel had torn his ACL weeks earlier and looked miserable, broken really. I imagine that’s how Jones will feel during the Hoosiers tournament run. The difference being, Hummel had a year of eligibility left, Jones does not.
I hope now that his Indiana career is over it is appreciated more than it was while he was in uniform. No player in the Crean era was asked to do more, and when criticized by fans he didn’t complain. After getting demoted, he handled it with class; he deserved a better end than this.
We hoped it wasn’t serious, unfortunately it was, but we also hoped a guard from Champaign, Illinois would be the first building block back to prominence, he was.
Thank you, Verdell.