Minium: Jeff Jones is Grateful for Being Named C-USA Coach of the Year, but Dearly Wants NCAA Tourney Bid

March 13, 2019
By ODU Athletics
ODU Athletics

By Harry Minium

Frisco, Texas

I was attending a Conference USA reception Tuesday night, and was chatting with Old Dominion women’s basketball athletic trainer Megan Hammonds on the eve of the C-USA tournaments, when her phone began to buzz.

She’d just gotten the word that the ODU men had agreed to share their practice court with the women.

I put down my beer and we headed 100 yards or so to the Ford Center at The Star, the giant indoor stadium where the Dallas Cowboys work out. Conference USA puts up makeshift courts with temporary bleachers every year for its men’s and women’s basketball tournaments.

And indeed, men’s coach Jeff Jones agreed to a request from women’s coach Nikki McCray-Penson to share the court.

Neither team did anything especially taxing. They were just getting used to the wide open spaces they would be shooting into this week.

But it was kind of a special moment to see McCray and Jones nod at each other and men’s and women’s players chat quietly.

At many schools, the men’s and women’s programs compete for fans and attention and often, coaches don’t see eye to eye.

Jones and McCray aren’t particularly close, and that’s understandable given they travel in different circles. But when she needed a hand, he gave one.

McCray’s only other alternative was to get her team up at 6:15 a.m. Wednesday morning for a 7 a.m. shoot-around practice.

Given that the Monarchs have to win four games in four days to win the tournament, she wanted her players to sleep in Wednesday morning, especially a day after flying halfway across the country.

“I appreciate what Jeff did for us,” she said following her team’s 60-32 victory over Florida Atlantic.

Wednesday morning, when Jones was named Conference USA Coach of the Year, I thought of that simple but generous act the night before.

There were actually two coach of the year candidates on the court that night. McCray came to ODU last year and the cupboard was bare. She coached her rear end off and won eight games with a team that played hard if not always well.

She recruited nine newcomers and so far, the Monarchs are 21-9. It was one of the biggest turnarounds in women’s college basketball.

She did so while spending weeks at home in Tennessee nursing her Mom, who was dying of breast cancer.

ODU cleaned up on awards on the men’s side. Jones was Coach of the Year, B.J. Stith Player of the Year, Stith and Ahmad Caver first-team all-league and Xavier Green on the all-defensive team.

McCray was named in Conference USA’s coaches circle, but coach of the year honors went to Tina Langley, whose Rice team went 16-0 in conference play and is ranked 24th nationally. To have that kind of success in a mid-major league at one of the nation’s most exclusive private schools, that’s pretty impressive.

Perhaps Nikki will win the award next year. Every one of her players returns, and she’s got more recruits coming, too.

ODU women's basketball coach Nikki McCray with athletic director Wood Selig.

Jones’ selection was a no brainer. He lost two key starters from last season, and two players off the bench, before losing Trey Porter, a talented big man, late in the year when he transferred to Nevada.

As you probably know by now, at the time Jones was battling prostate cancer. He and his assistant coaches set to work to find guys to plug the hole in the middle.

Losing Porter was “a huge blow,” he said.

“We had some moments where we said ‘how are we going to get this done?’ We said ‘we’ll figure it out in time’ but we didn’t know how.”

Hampton native Dajour Dickens, whose freshman season at Providence was ended after three games with a back injury, transferred and was declared eligible. Elbert Robinson III transferred from LSU. Both stand 7-feet tall.

Between those big guys, senior guards B.J. Stith and Ahmad Caver, the Monarchs carved out a 23-8 season. They upset No. 25 Syracuse on the road and defeated VCU, which was 27th in voting for this week's Associated Press Top 25. 

Jones, typically, said his coaches and players deserve most of the credit.

“I’m certainly appreciative of the recognition," Jones said. “But I’ve been doing this job a long time. And any time you get this kind of recognition, it means you’ve got some pretty good players and a great staff.

“The biggest thing is our kids allowed themselves to be coached. You can coach your tail off but if your guys don’t want to be coached, it falls on deaf hears.

“They allowed us to coach them. And that’s huge in our being successful.”

I told him it must feel good to be named coach of the year, while also battling prostate cancer, and he smiled and answered the question with one word.

“Yes,” he said.

“But part of be a competitor is that you always want more,” he added.

ODU men's basketball coach Jeff Jones. 

What he wants most this season is to send ODU back to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2011.

“I want more for these players, for our fans, for Wood Selig, our athletic director, and for our President John Broderick.

“We worked too hard to not want more.”

The quest begins Thursday night at 7, when ODU takes on Louisiana Tech in the tournament quarterfinals. ODU must win three games in three days to win the C-USA tournament and the league’s only NCAA bid.

It won't be easy, as the Bulldogs have a robust home-court advantage in Wednesday's 57-56 victory over Florida Atlantic. More than 1,000 Tech fans celebrated the victory wildly. ODU will perhaps have 100 or so fans in the stands. 

Jones told his players to enjoy their awards and drink in the praise.

“Life is too short,” he said. “You need to appreciate those things.

“But at the same time, in a team game, there’s a bigger goal, a bigger accomplishment. The thing that makes those things so special is that you’re doing it as a family, as a team.

“The way college basketball is now, the tournament champion goes to NCAA tournament.”

An in spite of all that ODU has accomplished this year, and all the hardware the Monarchs won this week, that means the next three days are by far the most important of the season.

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