Jones is no joke as head of pack for Miss. State He's quick with quip, but strictly business on court for Bulldogs

THE BALTIMORE SUN

You would have thought Dontae' Jones was auditioning for a spot with Jay Leno last week in the Southeast Regional, the way he dropped one-liners.

A symbol of Mississippi State's stunning rise from the backwater town of Starkville, Miss., to the bright lights of the Final Four, Jones poked fun at nearly everyone, even himself.

Describing some 5: 30 a.m. workouts he was forced to endure when he missed class earlier in the year, Jones spoke of strength coach Richard Akins' passion for pain. The players' pain, it turned out.

"There were a lot of suicides [sprints]," Jones said. "You run with weights, arms up in the air, until he gets tired. And he never gets tired because he's standing still.

"It's an hour and 15 minutes of pure hell to me."

Wherever he went in Lexington, Ky., during the regional, laughter was certain to follow.

But when it comes to basketball, Jones -- the apostrophe in his first name was his mother's inspiration -- is no court jester.

It wasn't until the late-blooming junior college transfer became a dominating player for the Bulldogs that they turned into giant killers.

One by one, the Thunderdogs shocked the big boys -- Kentucky in the Southeastern Conference tournament final, then Connecticut and Cincinnati in the Southeast Regional -- to earn a spot in Saturday's national semifinals against Syracuse.

He was voted the Most Valuable Player of the SEC tournament after his 28-point, 11-rebound epic unseated No. 1 Kentucky. Two weeks later, the 6-foot-7 small forward was named the Most Outstanding Player in the Southeast Regional after collecting a combined 36 points and 23 rebounds in two upset wins.

"He is the most talented player I've ever coached," said Richard Williams, who has coached at Mississippi State the last 10 years. The thing he's learned to do is to play within a system and to learn to use his talents within that system."

Not bad for a high school dropout who once played in a midnight recreation league when he wasn't carving up chicken parts for a Kenny Rogers Roasters restaurant in his hometown of Nashville, Tenn.

As he looks back on those rough-edged days, Jones can appreciate how precarious his existence was, and how fortunate he is to have risen above it.

"Sooner or later, it would have led to bad things because I wasn't in school and I didn't want to work," he said of that vagabond period in his life. "There aren't many opportunities except the street life for a young black male."

Jones readily admits he was disinclined toward school. He suffered a serious knee injury his junior year at Stratford High in Nashville, and decided to chuck it all as a senior. That's when he worked at the restaurant and played his only serious ball on Saturday nights.

As it turned out, his basketball career hadn't dead-ended; it had just been derailed.

At the bidding of his parents and friends, among whom was Kendall Stephens, a former Tennessee State sports information director now working with inner-city youth sports in Nashville, Jones resurrected his career at Northeast Mississippi Community College in Booneville, Miss.

There, he was a two-time junior college All-American, averaging better than 28 points and 13 rebounds a game as a sophomore. There, he caught the attention of Rick Stansbury, Williams' assistant and chief recruiter.

Williams remembers the prophetic conversation he had with Stansbury last summer when Jones agreed to come to Starkville.

"He said, 'We can be a Final Four team now,' " Williams said. "I told him, 'You're crazy. We're not a Final Four team, but we have made ourselves better.' "

Jones' personal road to the Final Four was hardly a super highway, though. It was a path of winding detours and tall obstacles.

Before he ever played for the Bulldogs, he had to earn 36 credits through summer school work and correspondence classes to qualify. And then, midway through the season, the NCAA conducted an inquiry into his summer workload. Jones sat out a game before being cleared.

"I put myself in that situation," he said. "I was going to summer school from 8 to 12 in the morning, from 6 to 9 at night. It takes hard work, a lot of effort.

"A lot of people were skeptical about it, but I know what I did and I know how hard it was. I think that's one reason I'm so grateful for what I have now."

It wasn't until Jones had to sit out a game against Georgia that things fell into place for both him and the Bulldogs. Up until then, Jones had scored in double figures in only 11 of 17 games and the Bulldogs were only 4-4 in the SEC.

After sitting out a game, Jones has scored in double figures 15 straight games. Not coincidentally, 13 of them were wins.

Jones has averaged 14.6 points and 6.8 rebounds this season. While he was the hero of the march to the Final Four, he still suffers lapses, forgetting to play defense or not crashing the boards the way Williams wants. He had such a lapse against Cincinnati.

"There are times you'd like to grab him and choke him because he doesn't do what you want on the court," Williams said.

More often than not these days, though, Jones can draw a laugh from Williams, the Bulldogs' rigid taskmaster. Jones' off-court specialty is breaking the tension with his endless quips, like the one he uttered before the UConn game.

"You all got yourselves into this mess," he told his teammates moments before coming onto the floor at Rupp Arena. "Now you've got to get yourself out."

It's a fine mess that takes the Bulldogs to the Meadowlands this weekend. It could be Jones' farewell as a collegian. He said yesterday he would jump to the NBA next season "if there's a possibility to be a lottery pick or a top-20 pick."

And if he leaves, Jones figures to leave the Bulldogs laughing.

Tomorrow: Syracuse.

Final Four

At East Rutherford, N.J.

Semifinals: Saturday

Mississippi State (26-7) vs. Syracuse (28-8), 5: 42 p.m.

Line: Miss. State by 3 1/2

L Massachusetts (35-1) vs. Kentucky (32-2), 8: 12 p.m. approx.

Line: Kentucky by 8 1/2

Championship: Monday

Semifinal winners, 9: 22 p.m.

TV: All games on chs. 13, 9

Mississippi State at a glance

Location: Starkville, Miss.

Enrollment: 13,577

Conference: Southeastern

Final Four history: First appearance

Record: 26-7, 10-6 in SEC

How it got here: Automatic bid as SEC champ, fifth seed in Southeast Regional. Beat VCU, 58-51; Princeton, 63-41; Connecticut, 60-55; Cincinnati, 73-63.

Coach: Richard Williams, 10 seasons, 164-129

Top scorer: Darryl Wilson (18.6 ppg)

Top rebounder: Erick Dampier (9.2 rpg)

Top in assists: Marcus Bullard (5.1 apg)

Starters: Dampier (14.6 ppg, 3.2 bpg) at center, Dontae' Jones (14.6 ppg, 6.8 rpg) and Russell Walters (5.1 ppg, 5.5 rpg) at forward, Darryl Wilson (44.6 FG pct.) and Bullard (12.2 ppg, 1.6 spg) at guard

Why Mississippi State can win the national championship: The Bulldogs are hot at the right time, having won eight in a row and 15 of 17, including victories over Kentucky and UConn. Jones, a talented juco transfer, has meshed on a team of complementary parts and role players. State relies heavily on defense and rebounding, the staples of a winner.

What could stop the Bulldogs: Contentment and Kentucky. The 'Dogs don't figure to beat Kentucky twice in a row. And if they've suddenly become content at reaching the Final Four, they'll lose the edge that carried them through the Southeast Regional and not make it past Syracuse.

Pub Date: 3/28/96

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