Carl Jones had never heard of St. Joseph's when its basketball team rolled into the 2004 NCAA Tournament as a No. 1 seed.
Despite its impressive regular season record, Jones didn't think the small Philadelphia school from the Atlantic 10 could keep up with big-time teams from the Big 12 and ACC. So his bracket had the Hawks losing in the second round.
Four games later, Phil Martelli's squad had come within a
basket of reaching the Final Four and gained a fan in Jones, even if the team's run destroyed any chance he had of winning his pool.
"They really messed up my bracket," Jones says.
Five years later, the Garfield Heights (Cleveland) senior is rated Ohio's No. 1 point guard in the ESPNU 100 and has signed with -- you guessed it -- St. Joe's.
Looking back, it's no surprise it worked out this way since the arc of Jones' high school career has mirrored that of the Hawks' 2003-04 season. Lightly regarded at first (St. Joe's because of its conference, the 5-foot-11 Jones because of his height), both used toughness and an unrelenting work ethic to prove the doubters wrong.
St. Joe's was led by an overlooked, undersized point guard in Jameer Nelson. Today, the 6-foot Nelson is the starting point guard for the Orlando Magic and continues to outwork and
outplay those more gifted physically.
Jones has looked up to Nelson since watching him run the show at St. Joe's. He sees a lot of himself in Nelson, the winner of the 2004 Wooden and Naismith awards as college basketball's Player of the Year. Just like Nelson, Jones is never afraid to attack the rim, no matter how many big men are in his path or how many times he's already been knocked down.
"You've got guys 6-4 playing the point now, so smaller guys need that extra edge, that mean edge," says Jones' father, Carl Sr.
Carl Jones Favorites
TV Show: "Martin"
Movie: "Paper Soldiers" & "House Party"
Actor: Martin Lawrence & Mike Epps
Musical Artist: Gucci Mane
Having an edge has never been a problem for Jones. His
family is close with Earl Boykins, a fellow Cleveland product who thrived in the NBA despite being 5-foot-5. Jones often gets advice from Boykins on what it takes to make it in The League.
Thanks to his undeniable skills and unshakable self-confidence, Jones has joined Boykins as one of the great playmakers in Cleveland history.
"People consider him to be one of the best guards ever from around here," Garfield Heights coach Sonny Johnson says.
Johnson first noticed that potential when Jones was in sixth grade. Back then, Johnson caught one of Jones' games and was immediately impressed.
"He just had a really aggressive attitude," Johnson says. "He's always had that nice
confidence and swagger."
"I've always had confidence," adds Jones, who is widely known as Tay thanks to his middle name, Devonte. "I don't think anyone can check me, and I think every shot's going in."
Because of that belief in himself, Jones never stresses before a big game. Whether it's a preseason scrimmage or the district finals, he takes the same laid-back approach. He finds a seat in the locker room, calls up some Lil Wayne or Gucci Mane on his iPod and gets ready to go to work.
"Once before a big game last year I was yelling, trying to get him excited, and he just looked at me like I was crazy," Johnson says. "Then he went out and scored 28 points. Whenever it's a game, the switch is on and you don't have to try to motivate him."
Playing with a little something extra to prove never hurts, either.
Jones spent his freshman year at Solon, where he played JV despite his belief that he belonged on varsity. After transferring to Garfield Heights as a
sophomore, he immediately found his niche and became the team's star. In the Division I district finals, the Bulldogs were matched against Jones' former school. He put forth an inspired effort, pouring in 28 points, but it wasn't quite enough as Solon prevailed, 59-57.
"That's when I really knew what kind of competitor he was," Johnson says.
It was the type of performance Johnson would get used to the following year, as Jones averaged 25 points, six assists and two steals per game as a
junior. Once again, Garfield Heights rolled through the regular season,
amassing a 20-1 record heading into a showdown with Cleveland Heights in the district semifinals. While Jones led the way with 32 points, the Bulldogs could not hold a five-point halftime lead and fell, 88-74.
Those losses stayed with Jones throughout the offseason. Whether it was being the lone local product at the prestigious LeBron James Skills Academy in Akron or working out by himself at Garfield's gym, Jones pushed himself to the limit by thinking back on the early playoff exits the past two seasons.
By putting up 500 shots a day, Jones became deadly accurate from
downtown as well. Add to that his explosive ability to slice into the paint and
finish through contact and he is the total offensive package.
Jones' current practice regimen is a far cry from his early workouts at Garfield Heights as a sophomore. While Jones and Johnson were getting used to each other, they repeatedly butted heads.
"I kicked him out of practice at least twice a week those first couple of weeks," Johnson says. "It was just about him trying to understand where I was coming from and me understanding how good he was. We've really
Now they're hoping it pays off in Jones' final campaign.
"I want to get Mr. Basketball and get to state," Jones says. "That motivates us more and more each year."
A state title would be the perfect ending for Jones before he heads off to St. Joe's. And once he gets there, it'll be Jones looking to bust the brackets of those who dare doubt the Hawks.
Ryan Canner-O'Mealy covers high school sports for ESPN RISE.