By Jeff White
CHARLOTTESVILLE — Tony Bennett got his first look at his basketball team’s media guide Sunday morning. Flipping through it, UVa’s new coach stopped on Page 84.
“He could be an important guy for us,” Bennett said, pointing to a photo of junior guard Jeff Jones.
That’s the goal for Jones, who graduated from Monsignor Bonner High in 2007 as the all-time leading scorer in Philadelphia’s storied Catholic League.
Considered the heir apparent to J.R. Reynolds at UVa, the 6-4 Jones hit five 3-pointers in a win over Arizona in his third college game and made six treys against Bradley in the final game of his freshman season.
As a sophomore, he scored 19 points against eventual NCAA champion North Carolina and had 16 against the Miami Hurricanes.
So, yes, he’s had some memorable moments. Overall, though, Jones’ lows have outnumbered his highs as a college player, and he often seemed out of favor with Bennett’s predecessor, Dave Leitao.
“He was struggling last year,” sophomore point guard Sammy Zeglinski said of Jones. “I think his confidence was a little down. He started to second-guess himself a little bit. Now he’s just playing very freely. He has the green light, and he’s taking advantage of it.”
Indeed, Jones has been one of the Cavaliers’ standouts in practice thus far, and he’s a strong candidate to start at shooting guard.
“I would say he’s just stress-free right now,” sophomore swingman Sylven Landesberg said. “I think last year he just felt like there was a lot of pressure on him. I think he just feels like he can go out and play his game without hearing anybody.”
Jones’ body language reflects his renewed confidence. He looks happy on the court, and his shot drops regularly in practice. Gone is Leitao’s motion offense, replaced by a more structured system that plays to Jones’ strengths.
“If I had to have a dream offense, this would be it,” Jones said before a recent practice. “You’re loose out there. You’re playing your game, you’re coming off multiple screens, and eventually you’re going to be open.
“That’s just great for me. I’ve been working on my game a lot this summer, and it’s just perfect for what I worked on, and it’s perfect for my game.”
He noted that against Bradley in 2007-08 and at UNC last season, “I came off a lot of screens in those games, and I got a lot of open looks, and my teammates found me a lot. And that’s a lot of what’s going on this year.”
Zeglinski said: “He’s getting a lot of good looks. There’s a lot of dribble penetration, and he’s really finding the open spots to get available for kick-outs, and he’s knocking down shots right now.
“If he misses a shot, it’s like it didn’t even bother him. You couldn’t tell if he missed it or made the shot. That’s a good thing.”
Jones started 25 times as a freshman but scored in double figures in only three of his final 30 games. He averaged 4.8 points, shooting 31.4 percent from 3-point range.
His sophomore year didn’t go much better. Jones raised his scoring average to 6.5 points, but his accuracy from beyond the arc dropped to 29 percent.
Leitao stepped down in March after the Wahoos finished 10-18. The search for his successor ended with the hiring of Bennett, who’d spent the previous three seasons as Washington State’s head coach.
Jones knew nothing about Bennett initially, but the more he researched his new coach, the more he was intrigued.
“As soon as he got the job, I went on the Internet and found out a lot of stuff about him,” Jones said. “Found out his dad was a good coach, things like that.
“My dad knew about his father” — the legendary Dick Bennett — “and knew he was a great coach, and he knew it was all about defense. I knew, certainly, the first day when Coach hit the floor that it was going to be about defense first.”
When he arrived at UVa, Jones was not known for his prowess in that area, but he’s improved defensively. He’s also learned to take care of the ball.
As a freshman, Jones had 41 turnovers and only 17 assists. A season later, he had more assists (24) than turnovers (15).
And now he’s a veteran on a team picked to finish 11th in the ACC. If the Cavaliers are to climb above the .500 mark this season, they’ll need more than scoring from Jones, in all likelihood. They’ll need leadership.
“It’s kind of funny, because my first couple of years, I was the one asking all the questions,” Jones said. “But now you see the young guys coming up and asking a lot of questions.
“So it’s quite a change, but I welcome it, because I’ve been through a lot. I’ve been there through the ups and downs, so I can tell a lot of guys how to get through it. Just work your way through it and have faith in yourself, and it’s all going to work out.”
That No. 23 has embraced Bennett’s coaching style is clear. Jones says his teammates feel the same way.
“It’s going to be a great year for everybody,” he said. “The energy is high in practice, the energy is high in the locker room. I think everybody feels like they’ve got a fresh start, a clean slate. Everybody feels our down year was last year, and everybody’s just ready for the season. We can’t even wait. We’re counting down every day.”