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February 9, 2011You can't win big games...
When a guy like Momo Jones is your best lead guard.
I know he has all that "heart and desire" bull****, but you actually have to be good at basketball. - GOAZCATS.com poster on the Free Message Boards two weeks ago.
On the Arizona message boards, posts like the one above have been common throughout the season. And maybe rightfully so. There's no doubt that MoMo Jones' transition as Arizona's starting point guard has been rocky at times.
In the first two months of the season, it's hard to find a UA fan that didn't question if he was good enough for the job.
During Arizona's 13-game non-conference season, MoMo averaged 7.3 points and had a 1.14 assist to turnover ratio; hardly good enough for a Pac-10 starting point guard.
In Arizona's four losses to Kansas, BYU, Oregon State and Washington, the opposing team's starting point guard scored 82 points to go with 22 assists and 8 turnovers. In those same four games, MoMo scored 61 points with 4 assists and 13 turnovers.
Those weren't MoMo's worst four games of the season and it would be foolish to place blame on him for the losses, especially considering that two of those matchups were against Jimmer Fredette and Isaiah Thomas.
However, there's no questioning the importance of winning the battle of starting point guards and for much of the first two months of the season, MoMo was playing at a fraction of his potential.
The result? Arizona was a respectable bubble team that the majority of the country considered to be a group of Derrick Williams and everyone else.
Arizona was somewhat in the picture for the conference crown, but Washington was clearly the team to beat in the Pac-10.
After two months of largely mediocre basketball, something clicked for MoMo at Washington State on Jan. 22. He scored 11 points with 5 assists to 1 turnover and UA won a road game that kept the Wildcats in serious contention to win the league.
Ever since then, MoMo has gotten better every game and the difference in the team isn't just obvious to a UA fan, but also the rest of the country.
Before Washington State, Arizona was a game and a half behind Washington in the Pac-10, unranked by the Associated Press and mostly considered to be somewhere between an 8 to 10 seed in NCAA tournament projections.
Now? Arizona is a game and a half ahead of second place UCLA in the Pac-10, ranked 15th by the Associated Press and in ESPN.com's Monday projections, UA was projected as a 5-seed in the NCAA tournament.
What's changed? MoMo has changed. And Arizona is now the team to beat in the Pac-10 because of it.
"You can't win counting on a player like him. He's not a winning player." - Pac-10 coach this off-season.
MoMo has been doubted not only by the Arizona fan base but also by opposing coaches in the league. Maybe for good reason, maybe not.
On Jan. 2, 2010, he was suspended for a road game at UCLA after getting in argument with Sean Miller during the Wildcats' 56-50 loss to USC on Dec. 31, 2009.
He strongly considered quitting the team and transferring at the time, although he ultimately opted to stick it out.
"I basically did some soul searching, going back home, talking to my family, talking to my girlfriend and my best friends, and it was not wanting to be that kid that quit and went somewhere else and took the easy route," MoMo said last October.
That decision paid off. After struggling with adjusting to the college game for the first two months of the 2009-10 season, Jones came alive shortly after opting to remain at UA.
He scored a then-career high 13 points off of 5 of 6 shooting from the field in just 12 minutes in an 87-70 win over Washington a week later, and he slowly began to regain trust from Miller and his staff.
After scoring in double digits just twice in the non-conference season, Jones did it seven times in Pac-10 play. He scored 16 points in a 71-69 win over Stanford on Feb. 27, hitting a shot at the buzzer to win the game for the Wildcats. He led Arizona to a 78-73 victory over UCLA a week later, scoring 16 points with 4 assists in the win.
Halfway through the 2009-10 season, most UA fans - and probably the UA staff - were wondering if MoMo was good enough to ever be a player that Arizona could rely on.
In the second half of Pac-10 play, he improved so much that Miller felt comfortable abandoning the recruitments of five-star guards Josh Selby and Doron Lamb and taking a commitment from Jordin Mayes, opting to go with the duo of MoMo and Mayes for a season and then finding a high level point guard in the 2011 class.
He went from a player on his way out to a serious piece of the immediate future of the UA basketball program.
"He's a work in progress. I think he shows signs. It doesn't come natural some of the things that we're trying to get him to do, but he's staying with it. The only thing I can really judge MoMo on is if he's coming to work hard every day and he is." - Sean Miller after a 63-58 win over NAU, in which Jones had 6 points, 1 assist and 1 turnover in 25 minutes.
Miller didn't exactly give MoMo a great vote of confidence after that NAU game, and probably for good reason. At that point in the year, he had 25 assists to 24 turnovers and was averaging just 7.8 points per game.
It's not that MoMo was bad, but it was hard to argue that he was good, and he certainly wasn't performing at the level fans thought he was capable of after the way he finished off the 2009-10 season.
After another month of mediocre play, MoMo scored 2 points on 0 of 2 shooting in an 80-69 win over Arizona State. It was Jan. 15, and at that time there wasn't much reason to believe he was going to get his act together.
Except for one small thing. We've seen this before. Jones was mediocre the first two months of the 2009-10 season before coming alive the last month and a half of the season during Pac-10 play, when the games really counted.
Yet you still didn't think he was going to turn it around this year.
"He comes alive at the biggest moments of the season. That's what he's doing." - UA assistant Emanuel Richardson
Through the first 19 games of the season, MoMo averaged 7.7 points per game. Which isn't too bad for a point guard, unless he's also averaging 2.4 assists to 2.3 turnovers, as he was at the time.
But during Arizona's five-game win streak, a stretch that has put UA in a previously unexpected position to be the odds on favorite to win the Pac-10, MoMo has averaged 17.4 points, progressing rapidly from game to game.
What he did in the Wildcats' 107-105 victory over California is something UA fans will talk about for years. He hit the and-one to send the game to overtime, nailed a three-pointer down three in the last seconds of double overtime to force a third overtime, and scored the final go-ahead basket in triple overtime to give Arizona the win.
If UA does win the Pac-10 this season, you can point to that game as the reason why. Which means you can point to MoMo as the reason why. He put Arizona on his back and willed his team to victory, which a few weeks ago not many thought was possible.
Except MoMo. And maybe his godfather, who knows as well as anyone just how important winning is to him.
"He's won every place he's been," Book Richardson said. "He gets really caught up with winning. He feels he has to be the guy and he has to put the team on his shoulders. He's not doing it because he's selfish; he's doing it because he wants to win so bad and that's how it's been done for him in the past."
Because of the emergence of MoMo, Arizona is not only winning but doing it in a way that shows a toughness that UA teams haven't shown in years.
For the first time in years, you came away from a big Arizona game knowing how important winning was to the team.
It's not that there aren't UA teams who haven't shown toughness, or heart at times, but not recently, and not like that.
Up until Saturday's game, you got the feeling that without Derrick Williams, UA would be hard-pressed to go up against almost anyone in the Pac-10 and win. But UA took Cal's best shot during regulation and three overtimes on Saturday and won. For all three overtime periods, it was without Williams. It was because of MoMo.
Yes, it's still Williams' team. But he finally has company.
"There's always going to be a Robin to someone else's Batman," Richardson says.
And that's where MoMo comes in. He may not be the fastest point guard in the Pac-10, he may not be the quickest, he may not be the best shooter and he may not be the most talented.
But he has a few intangibles that may be more important than all of that.
"Heart, toughness and will," said Richardson. "We'll take that any day of the week."
GOAZCATS.com: What's going to be the most challenging part of trying to replace Nic Wise this year?
MoMo Jones: Nothing.
It sounded good when Jones gave that response to a question in October, but through the first couple months of the season, it proved to be incorrect.
However, MoMo's sudden and rapid improvement came at the perfect time. It doesn't matter what happened in November, December and some of January. What matters is that during the last five games, he's taken his game to the next level.
If he continues to play as he has, Arizona will likely win the Pac-10 and earn a pretty high seed in the NCAA tournament.
Three weeks ago, these things seemed impossible. Now they're all well within aim.
After the Cal game, MoMo took to Twitter to properly announce his second comeback story in as many years.
"I told you, I told you, I (fricking) told you!!!!!!" he said.
We were wrong.
He was right.
* Inna Lazarev contributed to this article.
* Follow Josh Gershon on Twitter.
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