COLUMBUS — When asked about his performance postgame, DeVante’ Jones often repeated himself.
The graduate guard kept on going back to one line:
“It’s easy for me.”
Easy because, in his eyes, he’s surrounded by a great team. Easy because he understands all of the concepts. Easy because the game has slowed down for him.
On Sunday in Columbus, when the Michigan men’s basketball team had its back against the wall, desperate for a win, Jones made it look just that.
Jones finished with 21 points and nine assists, going 9-for-16 from the field and 3-for-6 from deep. When his team needed him most, he put on a masterclass in the Wolverines’ 75-69 upset victory over Ohio State.
“I believe, in college basketball, you win through your point guards,” Michigan acting head coach Phil Martelli said. “And certainly, (Jones) led us today.”
He led the Wolverines when their star center, sophomore Hunter Dickinson, was out with a stomach ailment. He controlled the game whenever he was on the court, picking apart the Buckeyes’ defense in the pick-and-roll and calling his own number when the offense stalled. Jones did everything.
He might have even saved Michigan’s season.
After the Buckeyes cut the deficit to four with just under five minutes to play — threatening to overcome what was once a 12-point deficit — Martelli took a timeout. The crowd at Value City Arena was back on its feet after a second half that carried very little reason for them to cheer, and Ohio State held all the momentum after a 10-2 run.
But then, just like Jones did all game, he made winning plays. On the ensuing possession, Jones calmly snaked his way into the lane for a layup to push Michigan’s lead back up to six. The next time down the court, Jones found freshman big man Moussa Diabate off the pick-and-roll for an uncontested dunk.
Jones put the Wolverines back in control, a position that they were in for the rest of the game.
But even still, after all that he did, Jones was quick to deflect the praise to his teammates:
“When you play with a guy like Moussa, it’s really easy,” Jones said. “He’s so athletic, he plays hard every possession. … He’s really the one doing all the work honestly. But we had a great team effort, a great team win. We had a balanced scoring attack, so I can’t take all the credit. It’s a team effort.”
Jones hasn’t always been in the position that he is now, passing praises for himself onto others. At the beginning of the season, Jones was typically answering questions about his individual struggles. He had to put a finger on why he and the rest of the team weren’t living up to expectations.
“At the beginning it was excitement,” Jones said of his early struggles. “I was trying to do things too fast, not really understanding the flow of the game.”
The Wolverines will most likely never get out of the shadow of their lofty preseason expectations. But, after all of his improvement, Jones certainly has.
Maybe he has even surpassed them.
But that doesn’t really matter to him. What matters is that he is the best version of himself, the DeVante’ Jones that helps his team win.
The one that starred on a Sunday afternoon in Columbus.
When asked about what this win meant for Michigan’s more pressing goal — making the NCAA Tournament — Jones answered like someone who understood the ups and downs firsthand.
“We don’t want to get too high on it,” he said. “Because we know if we’re having a good game, (then) the next game we’ll kind of crumble. So we’re going to try to stay level-headed.”
Jones is still acutely aware that there are more places to go, both for himself and for his team. He knows that Michigan needs to find consistency if it wants to do something with its postseason.
But maybe Jones also knows that whether or not the Wolverines get there is up to him. It certainly won’t be easy, but with Jones in control of the game, maybe Michigan has a chance.
And in March, after a turbulent season, that’s all the Wolverines can ask for.