BLOOMINGTON – Go ahead and boo Verdell Jones. It's not like he hasn't heard it before. Tell the Indiana senior guard that he stinks, that he's a human turnover, that he belongs at some backwater college far removed from the Big Ten spotlight.
He thrives on it.
“I've been doubted and hated on ever since I was a little kid,” Jones said in a voice low enough to test a tape recorder's limits, hard enough to hammer a point. “That motivated me to go beyond what people expected.”
Expectations became dread for Jones doubters when word surfaced he would play against Northwestern Wednesday night. He'd missed the previous two games with a bruised right shoulder, teammate Victor Oladipo had thrived in his place, and critics hoped Jones would keep sitting.
Instead, Jones delivered the back-breaking crunch-time jumper that enabled the No. 18 Hoosiers to hold off Northwestern 71-66. He scored all six of his points in the final four minutes of a nail-biter finish. In 18 minutes he had four assists and no turnovers.
Let's repeat that. No turnovers.
“People said I couldn't play without a turnover,” he said. “I proved them wrong.”
Jones was 3-for-4 from the field, added three rebounds, two steals and one block, plus eight defensive deflections.
“Verdell comes in after missing a couple of games and plays defense at a high level,” coach Tom Crean said. “That's big for us.”
Still, for some, it isn't enough. It's never been enough for the Illinois native who arrived as an unheralded, under-sized shooting guard forced by necessity into a point guard role, with predictable results.
Jones would sometimes drive head down into disaster, or force shots when open teammates beckoned, and some fans seemed to vent all the frustration on the program's implosion in the wake of the sanction-filled Kelvin Sampson era toward him.
They'd boo and tweet and find fault.
They still do.
“I don't get into any of that,” Crean said. “Verdell doesn't hear any of that in the locker room, I tell you that. He doesn't hear any of that from me. He gets coached. He gets support from teammates.”
And yet …
“Here in the (Bloomington Herald-Times) I would see how bad turnovers I have,” he said. “It motivated me to keep going, be strong with the ball, don't force anything. That helped me cut them down.”
Jones has scored 1,308 career points, which ranks 24th in school history. He beat Kentucky's end-of-game defense and made the pass -- rather than force a shot -- to Christian Watford for the game-winning three-pointer against the nation's No 1 team.
This season Jones has 85 assists against 60 turnovers, by far the best ratio of his career. His 379 career assists rank ninth in school history, ahead of Isiah Thomas and Chris Reynolds, and six behind Steve Alford. He has a chance to become the eighth Hoosier to total 400 assists.
And yet …
“People said I was too skinny to play big-league ball,” he said. “I proved them wrong.”
Jones proved it Wednesday night by playing with a banged-up shoulder and a resolve that enabled him to overcome early hesitation against Northwestern. He hadn't gone through a full practice until Tuesday, and battled some fatigue and his own nervousness.
“At first I was passive,” he said. “In the second half I wanted to be more assertive. Once I got into a little groove, I got some confidence.”
Oladipo was glad to see it.
“He's like my big brother. When I first got here he was the first guy I looked up to. He's been through a lot. He's been through the most of anyone in this program. He's had his share of ups and downs.
“It's sad when he gets hurt. He's down. He wants to play. To see him blossom like he did (against Northwestern) is a blessing.”
IU blessing included a 20-win season. The Hoosiers did it in 26 games. In the last 20 years, only two Indiana squads have done it faster -- the 1993 team did in 22 games; the 2008 team needed 23 games.
For a program coming off three straight 20-loss seasons, that was big.
“It's a huge burden lifted,” Jones said. “Beating Kentucky was good. Beating Ohio State was good. But finally getting to the 20-win mark, we're that much closer to reaching our ultimate goals.”
That means the NCAA tourney and a deep March run, but that's beyond the one-game-at-a-time mentality that got the Hoosiers past a 15-10 Northwestern squad fighting for its own NCAA tourney opportunity.
The Wildcats led 21-18 early, countered a 10-0 IU run with a 6-0 run of their own, yet still trailed 37-31 at halftime.
Northwestern's 8-0 run to start the second half helped push it to a four-point lead before the Hoosiers pushed back. IU's Cody Zeller dominated en route to a 23-point, 7-rebound night. Northwestern's John Shurna hit everything in sight, and some things that weren't to total 29 points. Even Wildcat guard Reggie Hearn, a former Snider standout, made plays and finished with eight points and three rebounds before fouling out in 23 minutes. His shot-clock-beating jumper tied the score at 58-58 with six minutes left.
IU clung to a 2-point lead with two minutes left, then pushed it to four. With 31 seconds left, Jones hit the jumper that clinched it.
“That says he's a veteran who knows he can play,” Crean said. “He's scored over 1,300 points. He's been in the battles. There's no reason whatsoever to be tentative. We certainly didn't have a shot restriction on him. Take what defenses give. He created so much because he was so active.”
And then Crean, a defensive coach first even though he directs the Big Ten's highest-scoring team, offered a final thought.
“Verdell made a big shot at the end, but to come off an injury and get eight deflections is going at the top of my list.”