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Friday, March 9, 2012
Jones injury a cruel twist on resurgence

By Myron Medcalf

INDIANAPOLIS -- Sometimes, I hate sports.

Not the competition but just the fact that one play, one moment, one awkward landing can ruin a season and ultimately erase years of hard work. In Verdell Jones’ case, a freak injury ended his career Thursday.

The senior point guard tore his right ACL in the first half of Indiana’s win over Penn State in the opening round of the Big Ten tournament, the university announced Friday morning.

Indiana's Verdell Jones
How far can Indiana go this postseason without senior leader Verdell Jones?
The pending gratification of Indiana’s first trip to the NCAA tournament since a scandal-ridden 2008 season will not feature a veteran who deserves to participate.

It all unfolded in front of me at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. A funny landing and then, a scream.

The medical professionals who huddled around him knew. Coach Tom Crean, who had to fight tears, knew, too. We all did.

Jones will not get a taste of the NCAA tournament, despite being a crucial member of the 2008 recruiting class that started this rebuilding project at Indiana. He’s in the top 25 on Indiana’s scoring charts. He’s started 103 games.

I followed Jones in high school because he was very high on Tubby Smith’s list at Minnesota. The feeling was mutual, even though Jones ultimately chose Indiana.

But Jones talked about restoring Indiana’s name following a scandal that led to the dismissal of Kelvin Sampson, NCAA sanctions and multiple departures. And this season, anchored by three top-five wins in Bloomington, the Hoosiers have finally realized the vision that started to materialize four years ago.

The bottom line is that Jones walked into a messy situation when he made his debut as a freshman during the 2008-09 season. He was young but he took his share of criticism. He was also hampered by past knee and ankle injuries. But he emerged as a leader (11.5 points per game in his career) for a program that’s become one of the top turnaround stories in the country.

But the Hoosiers have to move forward without him. That’s basketball, players said after their win over Penn State.

As difficult as it might be to keep going at such a crucial point of the year, the postseason doesn’t offer do-overs for sympathetic reasons.

While the Hoosiers lost a key leader and crucial component, they looked like a team that could win the Big Ten tourney in the second half of their win over Penn State. They were fierce. Cody Zeller and Christian Watford recorded double-doubles and Jordan Hulls scored 20 in Indiana’s first Big Ten tourney win since 2006.

This team is still talented enough to advance in both the Big Ten tournament and the Big Dance. But the Hoosiers don’t have time for mourning. And they talked -- and played -- like a team that knew it Thursday.

Players such as Victor Oladipo will have to carry more of the load. They’ll need veterans to step up as leaders, too, because that’s where Jones excelled.

And they’ll need their coach, one who’s experienced a multitude of trials throughout his tenure, to help them stay focused in the final weeks of the season.

The emotional toll of a late-season injury can ruin a team. That’s Indiana’s greatest obstacle right now.