Where have you gone, Ben Walker?
Creighton needs a hero. A leader. A basket. A stop. A little clutch.
The Jays could use a little of that Walker and Ryan Sears spirit. Back in 2001, the last time CU won an outright Valley title, Sears and Walker put the team on their backs. The Jays were 5-4 in the Valley on Jan. 24. Then they won nine straight games.
They did it with the help of some Walker attitude. One game, a Missouri State player was talking trash, getting in Walker's face during warmups. As the players shook hands before the opening tip, Walker found the MSU yapper, shook his hand and wouldn't let go. He proceeded to tell the guy in language that I can't print what he was going to do to him. And then he went out and did it.
This Creighton team, so talented and so anointed and now wobbling into the danger zone, could use something. Gumption. Fight. Soul. A deep breath. Maybe a break.
Dare I say, heart?
I know right where to find it.
Lo and behold, Josh Jones wasn't hard to find on Tuesday. As the Jays prepared to practice for Wednesday night's fairly large Northern Iowa game, Jones was out on the CenturyLink Center court, joshing with his boys, flashing his neon smile, chucking up some 3-pointers and daring someone to come guard him.
“I don't know how to elevate like I used to,” said Jones as a long attempt clanged off the rim. “You know why? I need a hand in my face.”
There it is. Perfect. The mantra for the rest of CU's season: can't perform unless there's a hand in your face.
Jones has had more than a hand in his grill. In the last seven weeks, he had an episode and passed out before the Nebraska game, had two heart surgeries and retired from the game.
The cruelest irony of all is that the biggest heart on the Creighton team has a flaw, one so devastating that it's not worth the risk for Jones to play again. Because it might be the last thing he does.
But oh, what the Omaha kid wouldn't do to suit up once more, hear the crowd, feel the pressure, and the joy, of taking the last shot. The joy is in the pressure.
Ben Walker ruled his team with a hammer. Jones might just be able to do it from the sideline, with his heart, if his boys are paying attention to the message.
“I want these guys to get back to having fun,” Jones said. “They need to cherish the opportunity, what they have now, it means so much. It won't be there forever.
“There are people like me who wish they had that opportunity. So whenever you think about giving up, thinking it's too hard, thinking it can only get worse, think about people like me who would actually die for the opportunity to be out there.
“And in my case, that's true. Because if I went out there, there's a good chance I could die.”
This isn't about win one for the Josher. But Jones' message is clear enough: Show some urgency, Jays. Seize the moment while it's there.
Creighton is off-kilter. It's a long year. It happens. And sure, there are plenty of teams who would love to be 20-5 on Feb. 13. And yes, this Creighton season was always going to be judged by how it finished, not the middle.
The Jays have big-boy goals without the big-boy margin for error. They play in a world where league losses are considered bad losses, not acceptable ones. A couple more league losses and the Jays will be in a bad place and this will look like another typical Creighton season, on the edge, St. Louis or bust.
Jones wants to remind them that this is still the same team that beat Wisconsin, Arizona State, St. Joe's and Cal. And yet, it's not. Somebody's missing. When the shots fall, CU has a lot of answers. When they aren't, they run out of answers. They look lost. Soft. The energy leaves. Maybe a little faith, too, when Doug McDermott gets smothered.
Hmm. Maybe No. 5 was more than just a ball of energy who would take your breath with a flurry of 3s and make you shake your head with a forced mistake. Maybe he was one of the most important cogs in this machine.
Maybe Jones was the leader of the band. The heart, if you will.
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“College basketball is a marathon,” said CU Athletic Director Bruce Rasmussen. “And I don't care if you're KU or Duke, you're fragile. One piece, a Josh Jones, can change everything. The things he brought to the game, we miss that.”
Who knew? He did.
“I think it's fair to say the guys miss me,” Jones said. “It has been hard to watch because I know my capabilities, I know I inflicted that something, that spark, that difference, every time I played. I had a great relationship with Gregory (Echenique). I tried to get him the ball.
“There were other things, too. You have to take risks. I was a risk taker, but I learned what I couldn't do. The guys need to get back to that. Nevin Johnson took a 3 last time, a quick 3, it was contested. But it told me he was willing to take a risk to help the team.
“In order to succeed, you can't be afraid to fail.”
The roles on the bench have changed with Jones out, and some haven't been ready or able to give what he did, “that spark, that difference.” He was always a backstop in that way, with his optimistic, no-fear game. Good play or bad, Jones played with an undeniable faith.
“Now they have to dig in, on defense, everywhere,” Jones said. “Everyone has to be all-in. All 14 guys can see the problem. What guys are going to work hard to fill those voids, and solve those problems?”
Problems? Jones can tell them about problems.
“When adversity hits, you can't worry about outsiders or point fingers,” Jones said. “You have to believe. I firmly believe everything happens for a reason. With my adversity, I went to battle with my Bluejay Nation and my family. They were my crutch, they had my back. With them, I'm able to win the battle and we're going to win the war.”
Jones drew a comparison from Creighton to his alma mater, Omaha Central, which lost two important games in recent weeks but bounced back with a win last week that erased all the bad memories and put the Eagles back on track to the state tourney, which will define their season. Jones says CU was going to be defined by the NCAA tournament. Of course, it has to get there first.
“It's not how you start, it's how you finish,” Jones said. “That's how I live my life every day.”
There's a lesson in there, from the leader on the bench. He's got a hand in his face, a smile on his face, and he's not afraid to chuck it up again.
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