In his 29 seasons as a head basketball coach, Louisville coach Rick Pitino has coached some pretty good guards, as he’s had his share of All-Americans and future NBA players.
Just in the past two seasons at U of L, Pitino sent Peyton Siva and All-American Russ Smith on to the NBA.
But Pitino – and Cardinals fans – have high hopes for senior Chris Jones this year. In fact, Pitino sent him into the season with high, high praise.
“Chris Jones is as good of a guard as I’ve ever coached,” Pitino said, noting that when Jones lost weight this summer and got down to 170 that he was “unguardable.”
“It’s taken a long period of time to get Chris Jones where we want him,” Pitino added. “We tried to get 10 pounds off him to make him faster, and it took a while. He had to change what he was eating but he finally got it off.
“He’s among the best guards I‘ve coached from a quickness and speed standpoint.”
The 5-10, 170-pounder said he had a “really good” offseason despite a stress fracture in his shin that forced him to miss six weeks. Jones had a solid showing at the adidas Nations event in early August, and then was sidelined with a stress fracture in his shin until the first full-team practice in mid-September.
“I expect a big year from me,” Jones said. “I am back to where I was when I was in junior college, I feel. I think I am faster and speed helps, so I’m excited.”
Jones said with the loss of Russ Smith and Luke Hancock along with two other seniors that he has to “take on a larger leadership role” with this year’s team. The Cardinals will have six freshmen on the roster this season.
“I have to be more of a leader,” he said. “People will be looking to me more. I really am not that kind of guy but I know I have to do it. I know I have some big shoes to fill and I know Coach P needs me to be a leader.”
A native of Memphis, Tenn., Jones signed with Tennessee out of high school. But he ended up at Northwest Florida Junior College, where he had two stellar seasons.
Jones led NW Florida to back-to-back national junior college runner-up finishes and was named 2013 Junior College Division I National Player of the Year.
He came to U of L with lofty expectations, perhaps as high as any player in recent memory. The talk shows and message boards were lighting up with big talk about Jones and his game before he even put on a jersey at U of L.
“It really wasn’t pressure on me because I was just trying to do what I could,” he said. “But Russ (Smith) was the guy last year. I just had to do what I could and what my team needed me to do with Russ out there.
“Junior college was different. I could just do what I wanted to do, and here I had to adjust a lot because it was really different.”
In his first year at U of L, Jones was a key performer but not always the scorer he had been tagged as while in junior college. He finished as U of L’s fourth-leading scorer (10.2 ppg) and hit at least one three-pointer in 25 of 33 games he played.
Jones had a stretch of 14 games in the middle of the season when he scored in double figures just one time, but he led the team with 73 steals and also finished with 96 assists. He ranked No. 8 nationally in the KenPom.com rankings for steal percentage at 5.01 and was No. 20 nationally in steals per game.
He was named to the All-American Athletic Conference Tournament team and finished the NCAA Tournament with 28 points, five steals and just four turnovers in 89 minutes (three games).
“I felt like I got better,” Jones said. “I learned a lot from playing with Russ. I talk to him a lot and still talk to him about what I have to do for this team.”
One thing he struggled with the entire season was his weight. Jones said he weighed more than 190 pounds during the season. Pitino said Jones came back for summer workouts at 186, but Jones said by summer’s end he was at 170.
“I want to be the fastest guard in the country,” he said. “And in order to do that, I had to lose weight. It wasn’t something hard to do. I just had to have the willingness to do it. If coach says you have to do something, then you are going to do it. “
Jones said he had to eat healthier and watch the times when he was eating, while also working out hard and staying on the coaches’ game plan.
Pitino said it “took a while” to get the final 10 pounds to come off.
“He wants me to play at 175; anything to make him happy,” Jones said with a laugh. “But I want to lose even more. It felt great. I felt like I had my mojo back.
“I didn’t do a lot when (he was injured), but I was in the pool and watching what I had to eat. I didn’t want to gain it all back.”
And he didn’t do that, noting he was at 173 in early September.
“I have a big role on this team and I embrace the role,” Jones said. “This is going to be a good year. We have a lot of guys back and a lot of new guys, so we just need to make sure we’re all on the same page and playing hard.”
Jones is likely going to be the leader in the backcourt, starting alongside sophomore Terry Rozier. Pitino said both players would play the one- and two-guard positions, noting he doesn’t “really have a point guard anymore in our system.”
But he does have two good guards and he likes the potential with Jones and Rozier.
“I like risk-takers,” Pitino said. “I like guys that will take chances, will look to improvise, will look to take risks. So, I like that about Chris.
“The first day was exciting for all of us. It was quite noticeable because he dominated everyone for the first time. That’s what he can do.”
NOTE: This story also appeared in the Winter issue of Cardinal Authority magazine.