HOUSTON—"It's like a sigh of relief to be able to feel good about yourself on the offensive end and not be that liability anymore."
That was Matt Jones Feb. 7 after Duke's 90-60 win against Notre Dame.
Don't worry Matt, nobody will confuse you for a liability anymore after Sunday's Regional Championship game.
The sophomore from DeSoto, Texas, was arguably the best player on the floor for the Blue Devils as No. 1 seeded Duke toppled No. 2 seeded Gonzaga 66-52 to earn a trip to the Final Four in Indianapolis. Not only did Jones apply his usual defensive magic—matching a career-high with three steals—but he also poured in a team-high-tying 16 points and hit 4-of-7 shots from beyond the arc. After the game, he was also named to the South Regional All-Tournament Team along with Justise Winslow, Gonzaga's Kyle Wiltjer and Domantas Sabonis, and Most Outstanding Player Tyus Jones.
“Matt gave us such a huge lift," Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski said. "He’s been that dirty-work guy, and for him to hit those four threes, it’s like a big difference.”
"Dirty work" may as well be Matt Jones' middle name. Jones is always the guy diving for loose balls, scrapping for offensive rebounds, and talking to his teammates on defense. He's also always the man who's forgotten when Duke thrives. During a 20-minute press conference before the Elite Eight matchup, Jones sat idly on the dais while the rest of the starting unit answered question after question until the moderator mercifully told Jones to answer one for himself.
You can't even find Matt Jones on the Internet if you look for him. On ESPN.com alone there are four results for Matt Jones that come up before the hero of the South Region Championship game: Matt Jones, the former Cincinnati Bengal who hasn't played since 2008; Matt Jones of the Florida Gators, who is one in a committee of running backs; Matt Jones, the former Phoenix Coyote, who also hasn't played since 2008; and a Matt Jones who allegedly played for the San Jose Sharks, though Hockey-Reference.com has no record of any Matt Jones other than the former Coyote (who, apparently, never played for the Sharks).
Think about that. Duke's Matt Jones is so obscure that he's comes up after two guys who haven't played their sport in seven years and a phantom player who may not actually exist.
But in a weird way, that sort of quirk fits the Blue Devils' Matt Jones' personality. Although his teammates were quick to heap praise onto their defensive ace, Jones himself stayed humble and pretended that he was not integral to the team's victory.
“If I found myself open, I was going to shoot it," Jones said. "Luckily we have guys like Jahlil [Okafor] and Justise [Winslow] to take us home—and Quinn [Cook]—so I took a back seat to them and obviously we’re here in this position.”
Sorry to burst the bubble, but I'm not sure hitting a 3-pointer to nip a 5-0 run in the bud before it got out of hand and coming up with a steal and transition layup to ice the game count as taking a back seat.
“That three—we all felt it," Winslow said. "It just gave us a lot of energy. He’s always there on defense and being tough and being active. When he has that shooting ability and that attacking the basket on the offensive end you know we’re very tough to beat.”
Who could blame Jones for thinking he was taking a back seat, though? That's been his job all season. Krzyzewski even talked about Jones as a starter before the year because he didn't need the ball in his hands on offense. That's the epitome of back seat.
Gonzaga head coach Mark Few certainly hoped Jones would stay out of the offensive flow, opting to "take a chance" and try to hide Kyle Wiltjer defensively on Jones. It's clear how that plan worked out.
That back-seat mentality is hard to shed for a player. Jones started to do so after the Notre Dame game back in February, but it's tough to totally eradicate it. Freshman Grayson Allen described Jones as "hard on himself and critical of himself." He spoke of how the team and the coaches needed to keep showing confidence in Jones, because they all knew he could be that difference-maker offensively.
“As a team we just try to put on the mantra of a new day," Jones said. "I hated being a liability, and today I had a good game.”
Jones is certainly not a liability anymore. He's the reason Duke is still dancing.
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