Casey Jones’ career at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga nearly ended before it began.
Now, the Mocs’ opponents are wondering if he’s ever going to leave.
Jones, the Mocs’ fifth-year senior forward, is finally enjoying the senior season that was snatched away from him last season due to a grotesque ankle injury. He’d played, fortunately, in few enough games to earn a fifth-year of eligibility, but it also meant missing out on much of the Mocs’ historic 29-win season under first-year coach Matt McCall.
In fact, Jones is playing for his third coach since committing out of New Orleans to play for former head coach John Shulman. He passed up two offers much closer to home to cast his lot with a team that had won or shared its conference title three of its previous four years. But his first Mocs team was one of the low-water marks for the Mocs in the past decade, with an 11-21 record. Shulman would wind up being fired, and homesickness threatened to derail Jones’ career before it began.
At the time of Jones’ commitment, one of his eight siblings said that she would be joining him in Chattanooga to help alleviate any potential homesickness.
“I’m a real family oriented guy,” Jones explains. “I’d grown up in a house with eight brothers and sisters, and I saw them every day of my life. My sister would come up here if I needed her, but she had her own life to lead. I didn’t feel the need.”
More self-assured freshmen than Jones have nonetheless had their plans and future disrupted by good, old-fashioned homesickness. He might have become such a statistic, opting instead to play in some Louisiana JUCO gym. The saving grace was Jones eventually embracing the friendships of fellow freshman signee Eric Robertson and walk-on Alex Bran.
“They’re like my brothers,” Jones told the Times Free Press last year. They’re two of my greatest friends in life.”
That rough season on the court made bonds with teammates even more ironclad, but his sophomore season began with the uncertainty of a new head coach.
Shulman was gone and first-time head coach Will Wade came on board. Having just turned 30, Wade could have easily been mistaken for one of his players, but his coaching ability quickly became apparent. His inaugural 18-win Moc team earned a brief trip to one of the “secondary” postseason tournaments, the College Insider Tournament (CIT).
Jones started every game as a sophomore and began expanding on his UTC legacy, making the all-Southern Conference team, averaging 12.2 points and 6.2 rebounds per game.
Jones, Wade and the Mocs all raised their game in the 2014-15 season as the team enjoyed its first 20-win season since 2004-05 (Shulman’s first season), and Jones repeated as all-conference by averaging 14.2 points and seven rebounds per game. His notoriety grew thanks to games like an overtime win over ETSU, when he hit a 25-footer with 1.7 seconds left after grabbing an offensive rebound.
The stage was set for an epic senior season. But things, to put it mildly, did not go as planned.
The first jolt was when Wade bolted after only two seasons to take over the program he’d just left as an assistant, Virginia Commonwealth, filling the seat of his mentor, Shaka Smart. But thanks to a search led by athletic director David Blackburn, lightning struck the UTC program twice when Matt McCall left the University of Florida program to take his first turn as a head coach.
McCall, the same age as his predecessor, had big plans for his senior class, especially Jones, who was named by the SoCon media as their preseason Player of the Year.
Ten games into the season, the Mocs had wins over Illinois and Georgia and a sweet 8-2 record when Jones’ life changed forever.
It was a routine practice and a not-so-routine landing that left him crumpled on the McKenzie Arena court with a dislocated ankle. The details of the injury do not make for comfortable reading. The way the UTC medical staff and therapists responded is much more encouraging.
“I’m grateful to a lot of people,” Jones says. “Dr. (Jesse) Doty, who set my ankle. Matt and Kevin, my therapists at Erlanger North. Coach McCall, who went to therapy with me many times just to see what I was needing to do.”
No one would have thought twice about Jones calling it a career.
On track to graduate that May, he was secure in his place in the UTC record books as he’d already topped 1,000 points for his career and stood as the only player in UTC history with 1,000 points, 500 rebounds and 150 assists.
Already this year, he has moved into the Mocs’ top 10 in scoring and has surpassed 100 steals for his career. But Jones made it clear that the decision had nothing to do with numbers; his job was not yet done.
The long road back included many nights on the UTC bench, where Jones was forced to watch – and encourage – his teammates as they set a school record with 29 victories. But it also allowed him to watch his new coach in action from close quarters.
Late in what was supposed to be his senior season, mid-February, he passed on being honored on senior day with his friends and teammates in order to come back for this, his fifth season, thanks to his medical redshirt being granted.
“I watched him a lot,” Jones says of McCall. “It made me want to come back, to play for him even more. To me, it was never a question if I would come back, it was if I could. It all depended on being healthy.”
McCall was as proud as he was delighted with the decision.
“Casey has always put the team first, and he’s continuing to do that now,” McCall said at the time of the announcement.
And, as these things tend to unfold, the turning point in his comeback came in the same place as the original injury, months before – on the practice floor.
“I came down with my (good) leg in the air, so all of my weight came down on the ankle,” Jones recalls. “I was almost like, ‘oh, no.’ But then I realized I didn’t feel any problem. It held up. I said, ‘Hey, it’s okay.’”
In the interim, Jones was not sitting idle. This past May, he graduated with honors with a degree in industrial management. His extra season has allowed him to move forward to begin working on his masters in secondary education.
“We’ll see where my life takes me,” he says, with a smile.
In fact, the UTC lineup is dominated by grad students.
Center Justin Tuoyo, the two-time defending conference Defensive Player of the Year, originally transferred to UTC from VCU, following Wade to Chattanooga. Also, a teammate is this year’s preseason Player of the Year, the explosive Tre’ McLean, a fifth-year senior who is a transfer from Queens University in Charlotte.
But, even this season began with a huge setback.
Mere moments into the first game, a sixth senior-to-be on this year’s team, Chuck Ester, went down with a knee injury that required what figures to be season-ending surgery. Ironically, Ester had inherited Jones’ starting role last year and went on to start the final 29 games of the 2015-16 season.
But suddenly, everyone’s role changed within the structure of McCall’s concept. Jones would be playing power forward this final season, Ester’s spot.
“Casey is a frustrating player to defend,” McCall points out. “You can’t guard him with a ‘big,’ you can’t guard him with a ‘small.’ What he did (in a game against Wofford) shows what kind of a team player he is as well.”
Jones was a last-minute scratch in the starting lineup this past week against the Terriers, a pesky but less talented team that very much resembles their namesake in being tough to shake. But after the first official timeout, Jones entered the game and wound up leading the Mocs with six rebounds, in addition to scoring 12 points.
Was it an ankle problem?
“Not at all,” McCall explains, with a reassuring grin. “His wheels are fine. He’s not perfect, he made a mistake that was perfectly understandable and was a few minutes late for our shoot-around.
“We talked about it, and he said, ‘Coach, you have to punish me the same as anyone else on the team. I can’t be seen as having any kind of special treatment.’ And for the record, he was seven minutes late,” McCall adds.
Jones was able to laugh when asked about his ankle problems earlier in the year, the latest knocking him out of the Tennessee Wesleyan game after he’d scored eight points in only four minutes. A “tweak” had caused him to miss two other early season games as well.
“Not the same ankle,” Jones says. “It’s held up fine.”
It was pointed out that Jones was well on his way to having a middle-aged body that could forecast changes in the weather.
“I think I’m already there,” he admits. “You have to realize, I’ve had my hip worked on, too. I can never do anything again without warming up.”
After 12 points and game-high six rebounds off the bench, he earned a grudging salute from veteran Wofford coach Mike Young.
“That son of a gun. We haven’t been able to guard him for five years,” Young says. “He’s terrific. It’s nice to see him back and competing this year after missing last season.”
But don’t kid yourself. None of the Southern Conference’s coaches were eager to deal with his return for year number five.
“He plays the game the right way,” McCall says. “When we’re on our game, I feel we can beat anybody.”
“We haven’t played that game yet,” Jones agrees. “I can’t wait to see us string 40 minutes together.”