Jones Has Been Here, Heard That

FAYETTEVILLE - By far the elder statesman on this underclassman-loaded Arkansas team, the only senior still around has been hearing it from the Razorbacks' young guns.

"They make fun of me all the time," said forward/guard Michael Jones, grinning. "I knew that coming in this year: 'Man, you've been here like 10 years!'"

Must seem like it.

Jones has been through a redshirt season and the firing of Nolan Richardson, whose 1994 Hogs won the national championship. He stuck it out when right-hand man Mike Anderson finished that 2002 season and after Anderson was not hired for the full-time gig. While some transferred before and during the two-year transition to Stan Heath, Jones held on tight through the unusual 21-35 run.

The Little Rock Parkview product -who signed with a program everyone around the country had become accustomed to penciling onto their NCAA Tournament brackets every year -has been through more than most.

And less.

But times may be changing.

To illustrate the closeness of this 2004-2005 team, Jones told a story during Tuesday afternoon's Arkansas Basketball Media Day about pooping out during one of those summer workouts coaches cannot attend.

The Hogs were timing each other during line drills and Jones had fallen behind.

Rashard Sullivan stopped in his size 14 or so tracks, looped around behind Jones and shoved him across the last line in the nick of time.

"I didn't have nothing left," Jones said. "And he's a junior, I'm a fifth-year senior. That just goes to show you ... That's not really been the case (in the past). Oh, man, the chemistry's great. We smile and joke around with each other. We're laid-back with each other this year. I mean, we help each other.

"We're pushing each other."

Jones has been through plenty of those media day deals. Matter of fact, five of 'em, counting his freshman year when he ended up redshirting to add some pounds and experience to that 6-foot-9 frame.

That first season of 2000-2001, we didn't listen in to Jones, but we heard guys like Teddy Gipson, Brandon Dean and Joe Johnson talk about a run to the Final Four.

They made it to one round of NCAA Tournament play, falling to Georgetown by one last-second point in Boise, Idaho. Jones watched from the bench and the Hogs haven't been back in March Madness since.

Year after year, Jones has heard preseason bravado from his teammates.

"Uh, huh," said Jones, rolling the eyes under those huge lashes.

Tuesday, we mostly heard guarded enthusiasm as Heath and the Hogs spoke of added height (7-foot freshman center Steven Hill, 6-10 freshman center Darian Townes and 6-7 forward Charles Thomas), a much-needed "consummate point guard" (6-4 junior transfer Dontell Jefferson) and depth.

Of course, you never hear gloom and doom predications before the first jump ball.

So what's the difference this time around?

"The difference is I think we have all the pieces to the puzzle this year," Jones said. "This last year, people said we didn't have no big man. Sometimes they said we didn't have enough guard play.

"We've got good guard depth and we've got good post depth. So, like coach Heath says, one of us slips us, he's got options with a lot more players. He's not saying, 'I've got to play this guy because he's all we've got.' We've got three, four or five post players and four, five or six guards.

"That's why I feel this will be a good year for us. Somebody gets tired, we've got more troops to come in."

All of those things should open lots of doors (maybe even the NCAA Tournament one?), leading to more pressing and man-to-man defenses, less zoning out, less reliance on 3-pointers, more open jumpers with kickouts, more inside strength and lots more energy (Heath doesn't intend to play anyone more than 30 minutes, a luxury he couldn't afford his first two seasons).

"I think it's going to be more fun to play," Jones said.

The Hogs can't wait to get started. Won't have to much longer. Friday night, Midnight Madness festivities tip-off serious workouts and the exhibition opener against Texas A&M Commerce is on Nov. 6. The season starts in earnest on Nov. 19 in the Paradise Jam in St. Thomas, Virgin Islands.

"We're so eager to get out there," said Jones of the Bud Walton Arena floor, not necessarily the Virgin Islands. "We're hungry. Everybody watched the NBA championship this year - Detroit - and knows defense wins games. I think we've got defensive components and offensive weapons, so I think we're ready, really, for anybody."

Believe it or not, Jones is ready to assume a leadership role.

That would've been laughable a couple of years back after Heath's arrival. Like some others, Heath questioned Jones' toughness and dedication, challenging him to do more than float outside for 3-pointers (which he can drain from all over; .338 percent last season). Jones answered the call, bulking (to 222 pounds) and toughening up. Last season, Jones averaged just 4.8 points and 1.7 rebounds in 10.1 minutes, but he came on late, pulling down 7 rebounds vs. Vandy in a 70-62 win on Jan. 24, scoring 17 points in the 74-52 win vs. Auburn on Feb. 4 and 15 more in the 91-81 season-ending loss against South Carolina in the Southeastern Conference Tournament.

Heath bragged on the soft-spoken senior's improvement on Tuesday and said Jones, always an important locker room presence with his quick wit and smooth style, also has made huge strides in stepping up to the vocal challenge. It took some time, though. At first, Jones figured he'd just lead by example. But he has rebounded from that notion.

"By me being the only senior on this team and the oldest of everybody, it kind of just grows on you where you have to take a leadership role," he said. "If things ain't going right, you've got to bring in the troops - 'Hey, guys, we've got to get this together. This is what we need to do.'

"And they're going to listen to me because I'm the oldest. They've already told me, 'Mike, we're going to listen to you. You've been here long enough, so we're going to follow you.'"

Jones wasn't talking about line drills. He has an NCAA Tournament run in mind.

No kidding.

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