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All-around star: Jones saves best for last in unprecedented career

Barry McNamara
03/19/2018
MONMOUTH, Ill. – Will Jones hadn’t been on campus long when a new M Club Hall of Fame class was inducted during Homecoming festivities. His head coach, Todd Skrivseth, remembers pointing out to Jones one of that year’s inductees, men’s basketball player Ivy Clark ’81.

“I told him, ‘That could be you before you’re done,” said Skrivseth, although Jones had yet to play a game for the Scots. “It was that evident, that early. He raised the competitiveness of our program.”

Jones’s impact on Monmouth’s won-loss record was immediate. After a postseason drought spanning 15 seasons, the Fighting Scots returned to the Midwest Conference playoffs his freshman year. The team won 16 games, with Jones averaging 14.3 points and earning All-MWC honors.

“I just try to do whatever it takes,” said Jones of his all-around game, which that season saw him lead the Scots in assists and steals while trailing only All-Region selection Andrew Mathison in rebounding and scoring. “Go get a rebound if we need a rebound, score if we need that, pass. I just want to win.”

Jones by the numbers

During his Scots career, Jones won at a rate not seen since all-time leading scorer Lance Castle and his classmates left the court in 1995, before Jones or any of his teammates were born. When he was named the conference’s Player of the Year this season, Jones became Monmouth’s third four-time All-MWC selection, joining Hall of Famers Pete Kovacs and Steve Glasgow. He was the Scots’ first Player of the Year since Castle.

But what separates Jones from all the Fighting Scots greats – even including Castle and his school-record 1,827 points – is that he finished his career in Monmouth’s all-time top five in the four major basketball statistics – points, rebounds, assists and steals. His numbers warrant special line-by-line attention:

· 1,492 points (third)
· 680 rebounds (fifth)
· 324 assists (fourth)
· 172 steals (all-time leader)

For good measure, Jones finished one blocked shot shy of a top-five spot in that department.

“I’ve never coached a guy who’s had the impact he’s had in all the statistical categories,” said Skrivseth, who was honored as the MWC’s Coach of the Year after guiding the Scots to a 20-8 record and an NCAA tournament appearance. “One of the things that makes Will so special is his consistency. You know what type of person you’ll get every night, you know what type of effort.”

What also separates Jones is this year’s conference championship, the product of a 15-3 mark in MWC action. It was the Scots’ first regular season title in the latest iteration of the non-divisional format, which began in 1998-99. It was also the Scot’s first triumph in a four-team MWC tourney after losses in eight previous appearances.

During the MWC tournament, Jones also excelled on the defensive end. He was the primary defender on leading scorers Eric Porter of Lake Forest and Isaac Masters of Ripon, who shot a combined 10-of-29 (34.5 percent) from the field.

“That’s the other side of it,” said Skrivseth of Jones’s ballhawking abilities. “I think he’s the best perimeter defender in the league. He just sets the tone for us defensively.”

Skrivseth said normal gauges of effort don’t apply to Jones, who was named to all-region teams by the National Association of Basketball Coaches and D3Hoops.com.

“The other coaches and I like to say that a 50-50 ball isn’t really a 50-50 ball if Will’s around it.”

The postseason gap

All that said, between Monmouth’s postseason appearances his freshman and senior years, the ride got bumpy for the silky smooth guard. A promising 2015-16 campaign, which saw all five starters return from the playoff squad, ended awkwardly, as the Scots lost their final four games to miss the postseason with a 9-9 conference record.

“It was a huge disappointment,” said Jones. “That was a year we were supposed to win it. I know a lot of our guys took it hard.”

The next year, the Scots simply couldn’t catch a break. They lost three conference games by three points or less, plus another that went triple-overtime, en route to a 6-12 league record, 6-17 overall.

“It was a nightmare, but looking back, that made it better for us for this year,” said Jones. “We were better prepared to battle.”

Senior success

And with four seniors in the starting lineup to begin the season, Jones said there was also a sense of urgency.

“That was our philosophy from the jump,” he said. “It was our last time, and we knew we were good enough – we knew we could do it. Everybody had trust in everybody else, and we were prepared to handle the season.”

Perhaps there’s no greater example of the Scots’ maturity and experience than a weekend doubleheader in Glennie Gym in early January. Up first was a Ripon team that Monmouth had edged in Wisconsin in December. But the Red Hawks pulled away in the second half to win the Friday night game 85-70.

The Saturday opponent was a St. Norbert team that had defeated Monmouth 14 straight times. Rather than hang their heads and succumb to the pressure, the Scots battled to ensure there would not be a 15th straight Green Knight win. Jones led the way to a 70-67 overtime victory with 14 points and eight rebounds.

“That changed everything,” said Jones. “We had professors talking to us in class, saying ‘Good game’ and ‘Oh, you guys beat St. Norbert?’ That’s when we understood how good we were. We knew we could beat anybody in the conference after that.”

Jones vs. ‘the system’

This season, the Scots did just that, and among the teams they defeated not once, but twice, was Grinnell. Before Jones arrived on campus, the Pioneers had won 18 of the past 19 meetings with the Scots. But with Jones in the lineup, Monmouth won seven of the teams’ nine meetings the past four years. His matchups with the Pioneers serve as a strong example of his all-around game and what his arrival meant for Monmouth basketball.

In the first meeting his freshman year, the Pioneers chose to foul Jones. He went to the line a school-record 28 times, making 21 of those free throws en route to scoring a career-high 33 points, more than any total he’d posted at Evanston.

The next year, Jones was all over the box score against Grinnell with 22 points, 13 rebounds and 10 assists for the first of his two career triple-doubles. In another game, the Pioneers made a concerted effort to keep him out of the box score, but with Jones keeping the defense’s attention, senior Justin Aluya and freshman Stephon Bobbitt both had big games in a five-point win.

In his final matchup vs. Grinnell at Glennie Gym, Jones would’ve likely set a record for “hockey assists” – the pass that leads to the pass that leads to the basket. He singlehandedly thwarted Grinnell’s full court press all night, often beating three players at a time off the dribble, before getting Monmouth into its offense during a convincing 107-92 win. More impressive than his stat line of 13 points, seven assists and seven rebounds was that he played a staggering 35 minutes in the highly up tempo game.

“I think the happiest guy in the league that Will is graduating is (Grinnell’s) Coach Arsenault,” said Skrivseth. “He’s been a one-man wrecking crew against them.”

Champions are built in the offseason

Jones has always been able to handle big minutes, but he stepped up his training after Monmouth’s disappointing 2016-17 campaign. In fact, Aluya can accurately say to Jones, “I know what you did last summer,” as Jones went to California to live with Aluya’s family for three months.

“We worked out every day, lifted every day, did hill workouts,” said Jones, who is no stranger to the gym. His father, Anthony, coached on several college staffs and was head coach at Slippery Rock (Pa.) University for seven years.

Jones and Aluya were already all-conference players for the Scots, but both players saw most of their averages increase from the previous season. Jones became more efficient, shooting at a higher percentage while dishing out more assists, while Aluya became dominant on the glass, hauling down three more rebounds per game and joining Jones on the All-MWC first team. Included in Aluya’s improved average was his record-breaking 25-rebound effort against Grinnell on a night that also saw him score 37 points.

Asked late in the season what it meant to him to finish in the top five on four career stat lists, Jones replied, “When I heard about that, I was so surprised. You talk about being the tops in scoring, and I’ve always been a pretty good rebounder. But I was never the point guard for our team, so I was surprised about the assists, and I never thought I got that many steals. But it really means a lot to me. I thought, ‘Dang, I guess I really was an all-around player.’”

What also means a lot to Jones is the faith that Monmouth’s coaching staff showed in him from Day One.

“I’m fortunate to have had an opportunity to play here,” said Jones, who is majoring in communication studies and public relations. “The coaches gave me an opportunity to play right out of high school.”

Four years ago, when Jones was considering his college options, he looked at small schools for basketball. But he also considered state universities such as Northern Illinois and Southern Illinois, knowing that would mean giving up the sport.

These past four seasons – and Monmouth’s basketball record book – just wouldn’t be the same without him.