Ruby Jones hit the ball off a couple of Middle Tennessee players, stormed out into the open and dunked two-handed on Saturday before sliding back into the Murphy Center.
A wild run by the North Texas guard capped off a wild comeback from a 19-point deficit in a 56–51 win that was particularly memorable for Jones. The win kept UNT in the thick of the U.S. conference title race and marked the latest step in a long journey after a slew of knee issues for dynamic point guard Mean Green.
The Houston native struggled with tendonitis in his left knee last season, which saved him from a UNT loss to Virginia in the National Invitation Tournament. A few weeks later, doctors had to surgically repair the meniscus in the same knee.
There were moments during the off-season when UNT coaches wondered if Jones would play at all this season, let alone make an impact, as he has done so far.
“The incessant pain was the worst part of it,” Jones said. “You think you’re fine, but you jump or land the wrong way and everything goes back to where it hurts. In the Bahamas championship match, I hit my knee. It swelled up a lot. It took three weeks before he was back to normal.”
Jones looked like himself for the first time in a long time in UNT’s victory over MTSU. The junior led Mean Green with a season-high 13 points off the bench, and he’ll look to build on that game when UNT (13-3, 4-1) hosts Louisiana Tech at the Super Pit tonight.
UNT won three games in a row after losing to the Florida Atlantic at the start of the C-USA season. A win tonight will send Mean Green to a rematch on Saturday in Boca Raton with a chance to avenge that loss and possibly tie against the FAU at the top of the league standings.
The Owls will face the Florida International on Wednesday night.
UNT has won regular or post-season C-USA titles in each of the past three years. With Jones back healthy, Mean Green is doing much better, extending this streak.
“The speed, athleticism and feel of the Rubin’s game make a huge difference in allowing everyone to take easier shots,” said UNT coach Grant McCasland. “His influence in attack is huge, but sometimes his defense is more important. He gives us an elite defender with the ball that allows us to set up our defense. We are at our best when Rubin guards the ball.”
It’s been that way since the start of last season, when Jones started the first 30 games of the year. There are brighter players in the UNT roster. Tylor Perry is the Mean Green’s top scorer and has a penchant for the dramatic, landing shot after shot.
Center Abu Usman controls the paint and occasionally throws hard dunks.
Both usually outshine Jones, who does the dirty work of setting up other players on offense and protecting the opposition’s best perimeter player. Last season, he averaged 8.2 points and 3.0 rebounds per game, finishing third on the team with 68 assists.
Jones has missed three games this season while recovering from surgery and had a minute cap at the start of the year. He still manages to average 5.5 points and 2.7 rebounds per game. The 23 passes he has dealt rank third among UNT players.
“It’s great to have Rubin back,” Perry said. “Any time you have a 6’5 point guard who can see the floor as well as he can, it makes everyone’s job easier.
“His best quality is that he is so selfless. He puts everyone in front of him, and he doesn’t care how many points he scores. He just wants to win.”
It was that drive that kept Jones on the floor in the final stages of last season after his knee began to ache. Doctors gave Jones an injection of platelet-rich plasma, which helped for a while before he simply couldn’t play anymore.
The end of the road came after he scored 15 points in 38 minutes of overtime over Texas State in the first round of the NIT. Jones attempted to play against Virginia five days later, but ended up being eliminated.
“It got to the point where I just couldn’t play anymore,” Jones said. “It was very hard to sit through this game. It was a game where if we lost, our season ended. You want to be there with the guys helping.”
The situation only worsened after Jones underwent knee surgery.
“The first month or so after surgery was the hardest time,” Jones said. “I tried to be close to my team and get back to what I was used to, which was playing basketball. When I came back here, it got much better. The recovery process went smoothly.”
Jones worked on the side with UNT’s athletic training staff throughout the preseason. It was then hoped that Jones would return for the start of the C-USA season.
Jones returned in UNT’s third game of the year with a win over Fresno State.
“The rehab process has been pretty rough,” McCasland said. Rubin has committed to doing everything possible to play this year. He exceeded all expectations in terms of how he chose to come back and play. He came back even earlier than we hoped.”
Jones credits his quick return largely to the support of his teammates, coaches and family.
“The guys helped me get through it,” Jones said. “They were by my side and encouraged me. It’s a long process of coming back after surgery.”
This process is still ongoing. Jones trailed earlier in the year. UNT has some new players. Jones took some time to learn the tendencies of his new teammates.
Perry was also briefly out at the beginning of the year due to injury, which did not help matters.
“We had to get used to playing each other again,” Jones said. “We were without Tylor, and then I came in with a brand new team.”
This team feels ready for the UNT now that Jones is back on the floor. Mean Green won three straight games in today’s game against Louisiana Tech.
“Things are starting to add up,” Jones said. “Everyone gets to know each other.”