His Best Shot

FAYETTEVILLE -- His picture-perfect shot hasn't changed since the first time he walked into Bud Walton Arena, but Arkansas senior Michael Jones admits he hasn't enjoyed the same sort of stability in other aspects of his five-year career.

There was the ongoing battle with the pencil-thin, slow-developing physique. Jones arrived from Little Rock Parkview weighing 190 pounds. But he has added 32 to the 6-foot-9 frame.

He'll never forget the incredible turmoil that surrounded former coach Nolan Richardson's firing late in the 2002 season and the up-and-down rebuilding process under current coach Stan Heath.

On the court, more of the same. Jones, a perimeter performer with a post player's height, has seen it all. He enjoyed the thrills of hot shooting stretches and relished a few memorable outings. But there also have been plenty of pine-time disappointments.

"It has been a roller-coaster ride at Six Flags," Jones said. "That's exactly how I'd sum it up. There's been up points. There's been down points. I've been spun around.

"It's been a real huge roller-coaster and I know it's about to end."

That's why Jones really hopes he finally can be consistent.

Arkansas' only senior, who spent the first half of this season at the end of Heath's 10-man rotation, will likely play a key role in his third straight start when the Hogs battle seventh-ranked Kentucky this afternoon.

Jones has made steady contributions lately, averaging 11.3 points and 23.7 minutes the past three games. After a frustrating start, Jones swallowed his pride and now is making the most of these fresh opportunities.

"I've just been so proud with his attitude and the way he has hung in there more than any other kid in the program," Heath said. "He's had the most difficult battle because he's been here for five years, redshirted one, then didn't play a whole lot as a freshman. He's been willing to hang in there and fight through it.

"For that, I'm really, really happy for him and things seem to be coming along."

Getting A Shot
Jones, who averages 4.6 points per game, believes he deserves that after what has largely been a low-key career.

The last remaining Hog to play for Richardson had much more in mind when he signed on for Arkansas. He had to endure the disappointment of redshirting his first season and was the only active Razorback not to crack the starting lineup at some point of the 2001-02 season.

Jones has earned eight starts in his 95 career games and is averaging just 4.9 points an outing. But he has scored in double figures 15 times and turned in career-high 18-point performances against Alabama in 2001-2002, Memphis in 2002-03 and Vanderbilt last season.

But Jones hasn't had much luck stringing success together. He has put together back-to-back, double-digit outings four times, but has never scored in double figures in three consecutive games.

"With Mike now as a senior, I'm hoping that he can give us a little stability," Heath said. "It's not necessarily that he has to score a lot. But just his presence of stretching the defense out or being under control or telling one of the younger guys, 'Hey, it's going to be all right.'

"I think that presence, that leadership of being there more than five years can help us more than any jump shot that he might get."

Jones had high hopes before this senior season, but was soon flustered after being overshadowed by a talented roster that includes prototypical freshman big men Charles Thomas, Darian Townes and Steven Hill.

Jones averaged 6.2 minutes in his first 14 appearances and never left the bench during Arkansas' 62-52 win at Missouri on Dec. 7 or the 64-61 home loss against Alabama on Jan. 11. He played six minutes or less in 10 of his first 14 games, was eighth in scoring (3.1 points) and didn't see much playing time on the horizon.

"It was frustrating, but in the same sense, it was a sweet feeling," Jones said. "We were winning and that was the first time I even experienced winning like that. It's hard that you're not playing, but sometimes you have to sacrifice. You have to think, 'Would you want to score 50 and lose or score two points, not play and win?'

"Sometimes I'd get down when we'd win. I'd feel like I wasn't a part of it or I really didn't get to contribute."

Late Shift
Jones deserves plenty of credit. His frustrations never kept him from heading back to Bud Walton Arena long after Arkansas practices for extra work.

He made a habit of slipping back into the gym around 10:30 p.m., where he'd wait for Arkansas' cheerleaders to finish their practicing routines. He didn't know when he'd play another minute or take another 3-pointer, but he put in the extra effort just in case.

Except for a few occasions when his older brother was in town, Jones shot alone in late-night silence. Sometimes the lights popped off, but Jones continued shooting in the dark. The solo sessions, coupled with his continued hard work in practice, grabbed Heath's attention.

"He probably doesn't know I know, but I know he was coming in the gym late at night," Heath said. "He was coming to practice every day, giving the first team all they wanted. The lesson is to always be ready. You never know when your number will be called. He's stayed ready.

"He kept a great attitude. He's got an opportunity and he's making the best of it."

Jones finally saw the payoff during Arkansas' 80-55 loss at Mississippi State on Jan. 15 when he came off the bench to give the Hogs a spark. He played a then season-high 20 minutes, scored nine points and was promoted to the starting lineup.

In his first start of the season, at LSU on Jan. 19, Jones scored a season-high 15 points -- 16 until officials reviewed his last-seconds 3-point bucket and ruled it a two -- in the Hogs' 66-63 overtime loss. He followed that with 10 points, most of which came inside, during Arkansas' 95-59 win against Auburn last Saturday.

"He was frustrated, but he didn't lose his composure," said Arkansas junior forward Jonathon  Modica. "He's really handled himself well in each position he's been in the last three or four months, and that's why things are working out for him right now.

"He stayed positive, was always cheering guys on. When you do good things like that, most of the time, good things are going to happen for you."

Down The Stretch
Heath said his team will get a big boost if it can get consistent on-target efforts from Jones the rest of the season.

Jones used to get down as playing time dwindled. But Heath said Jones is much more mature and finally capable of providing consistent contributions the rest of the season.

"I see a guy that's in his last year and has just kind of said, 'I'm going to do the best I can do. I'm not going to worry about circumstances I can't control. I'm just going to go out there and play to my strengths and just do what the coaches have asked me to do,'" Heath said. "Last year, he had some good games and he had some games where he wasn't. I think he has responded so well this year."

It's well-known that Jones' shot is one of the smoothest on the team. Ronnie Brewer called him "instant offense." Modica said Jones is deadly in practice and added "nine out of 10 times he's going to make open shots."

But Jones, who has five points in three games against Kentucky, understands intangibles (rebounding, defense, decisions) will determine how much playing time he gets from here on out.

What must he do to continue as a major player?

"Just go out there and play solid," Jones said. "Go out there and not try to do too much. Just do the thing that Coach expects you to do. Go out there and play good defense, play hard each possession offensively and defensively and make good decisions (on offense). Those things will keep you on the floor."

The way he has helped the Hogs the past three games, Heath believes Jones is capable of capping his five-year ride by remaining an integral piece of Arkansas' push for an NCAA Tournament berth.

"It hasn't been maybe the career Mike envisioned," Heath said. "But he certainly has the opportunity to wind it down at the high point of that roller-coaster."

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