Jones cemented in SEC player of the year talk

By: Scottie Bordelon
Published: Monday, March 2, 2020
Mason Jones, Arkansas guard, celebrates after making a shot in the first half vs Kentucky Saturday, Jan. 18, 2020, at Bud Walton Arena in Fayetteville. Go to nwaonline.com/photos to see more photos.
Photo by Ben Goff
Mason Jones, Arkansas guard, celebrates after making a shot in the first half vs Kentucky Saturday, Jan. 18, 2020, at Bud Walton Arena in Fayetteville. Go to nwaonline.com/photos to see more photos.

FAYETTEVILLE — Entering the final week of the regular season, the race for SEC player of the year is heating up.

As it stands, with two games to go until next week's conference tournament, it appears three players - Kentucky's Immanuel Quickley and Nick Richards, and Arkansas guard Mason Jones - stand above the rest in that discussion.

An argument could also be made for Mississippi State forward Reggie Perry, who is averaging 17 points and 10 rebounds per game for the 19-10 Bulldogs, who are 10-6 in league play after an up-and-down road in nonconference.

Team success is an obvious variable considered when crowning the top player in the conference. If it becomes something of a tiebreaker with voters, Quickley and Richards will have the leg up. Kentucky claimed the SEC regular-season championship on Saturday in its win over Auburn, and its stars led the way in doing so.

Jones, though, has as compelling of a case as any despite Arkansas’ 6-10 mark in league play and 3-6 record in February.

Monday, the junior guard was named SEC player of the week for the fourth time in 2019-20. He shared the award with Quickley, however, who joined the conversation to thanks to a strong showing in February. Only two other players have won the award four times in a season - Jodie Meeks of Kentucky and Vanderbilt's Shan Foster - since its inception in 1985.

Quickley averaged 21.3 points per game and shot 46.2 percent from 3-point range last month. All Jones did was pour in a career-best 25.6 points per night on 44 percent from the floor, carrying Arkansas offensively in the five-game absence of Isaiah Joe.

Arkansas coach Eric Musselman, when asked about Jones' being among the frontrunners for the award ahead of Wednesday's rematch with LSU in Bud Walton Arena, noted he is not thinking about it. He couldn't and won't deny the type of record-breaking season Jones is putting together, though.

"If he got it, it would be great," Musselman said. "But certainly there’s a lot of good players in this league and a lot of players that are on teams that are in higher positions in the standings than we are.

"He’s had an incredible year without a doubt."

With a strong finish to the regular season, Jones could become the first Arkansas player to lead the SEC in scoring. His 21.3 points per game is tops in the league and ranks 15th nationally. He is the only player in the conference to lead his team in scoring, rebounding, assists and steals.

Jones has added 20-plus points nine times in the Razorbacks' 16 conference games, 30-plus five times and 40 or more once.

Senior forward Adrio Bailey has been in awe of Jones' production and the leap he has made - mentally and physically - since he was Arkansas' third leading scorer as a sophomore.

"He just gave us his all each and every game," Bailey said. "That’s just one guy that motivates me to go out there and just go from playing 100 percent to playing 110 percent. Just how he plays - that dog he has, that fight in him.

"I look forward to seeing him at the next level."

Georgia coach Tom Crean was the latest in a long line of opposing coaches to sing Jones' praises on Saturday. The junior scored 26 points on the Bulldogs and got to the rim almost at will. He finished 7 of 9 on attempts inside the arc, hit all nine of his free throws and handed out five assists, tying his most in a game since Jan. 15.

"Jones is so good," Crean said after Georgia's 99-89 win. "We didn’t want to let him go right. Then he was beating us with his right hand and beating us with his left hand. He’s hard to guard."

Quickley or Richards may very well win SEC player of the year. Their impact on a national-championship caliber team shouldn't be understated. Time will tell.

But Jones has been the story of the year in the conference.

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