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‘Why not play great?’: Curtis Jones’ journey from community college to Sweet 16

Jacob Rice
Curtis Jones, pregame of the Iowa State vs. Eastern Illinois University men’s basketball game, Hilton Coliseum, Dec. 21, 2023.

OMAHA, Neb. — Curtis Jones had zero Division I offers coming out of high school. All he had was a community college where he could perfect his craft.

Now Jones is one of the best sixth men in the Big 12 Conference as his efforts on the court pushed Iowa State to the Sweet 16. From Jones’ humble beginning to knocking down huge shots on the biggest stages, there is a reason Jones never stops smiling. He is just happy to do what loves at the highest level.

“Out of high school, I woulda never seen myself here,” Jones said.

Coming out of high school, Jones had zero offers from Division I schools. Because of that, he decided to attend Indian Hills Community College.

Jones did not play in his state tournament during his senior year of high school because of COVID-19. His last shot at possibly turning the heads of scouts was gone.

“If we played state, who knows. I might end up getting an offer there,” Jones said. “That was just a blessing in disguise.”

Playing basketball at a community college was not his first choice, but he said it turned out to be a good thing in the end. It prepared him to play at the Division I level.

Jones balled out at the community college level, averaging over 12 points, six rebounds and 5.5 assists per game. He also had back-to-back games where he scored 26 points.

Shooting nearly 40% from deep is what turned heads the most. After one year at Indian Hills, Jones transferred to Buffalo. He was finally going Division I.

Jones’ first year at Buffalo was a learning experience, as he was not a star right away.

“I was playing behind a lot of veteran guys [and] learned a lot,” Jones said.

In the offseason between his sophomore and junior years, he worked harder than ever. He wanted to perfect his craft even more and bring his talents to higher heights.

Jones was handed the reins in his 2022-23 season at Buffalo. After starting zero games the year before, he ended up starting all 31 the next.

Jones went from averaging 2.5 points per game to averaging 15 a game. His hard work paid off and did not go unnoticed.

Following his junior season with Buffalo, Jones transferred to Iowa State. After being overlooked for a long time, Jones proved everyone wrong by being the sixth man that Iowa State has desperately needed at times.

From his nearly record-breaking defensive performance filling in for Tamin Lipsey on the road against TCU to hitting crucial threes game after game, Jones has more than proved his worth at Iowa State.

“There is evidence by his playing time and how much we have him out there in key situations,” Iowa State head coach T.J. Otzelberger said. “He’s had a lot of games over the last eight to 10 where he’s led us in minutes played, and that’s coming off the bench, which shows you how much we believe in him.”

Milan Momcilovic and Curtis Jones smile as Cade Kelderman’s name is announced for a sub during the final minutes of the Big 12 men’s basketball tournament game against Kansas State, T-Mobile Center, Kansas City on March 14, 2024. (Jacob Rice)

There is a “prove it” type of mentality that the team has as a whole. The team is almost entirely made up of transfer players that have been overlooked their entire basketball careers.

“Everybody plays with a chip on their shoulder being overlooked throughout our careers,” Jones said. “Now we all came together, and it’s a lotta guys with a chip. So, that’s a lotta chips, so that means we got a lot on the line. We wanna win all these games.”

“We take tremendous pride in playing with a chip on our shoulder, playing with an edge and giving everything we have,” Otzelberger said.

The ragtag group of transfers have been crucial in Iowa State’s historic season. In Otzelberger’s third year at the helm, his team is set to play in the Sweet 16 for the second time in three years.

Picked to finish seventh in the conference, Iowa State exceeded all expectations and finished second behind Houston. Not only that, but the Cyclones won the Big 12 Championship by blowing out the No. 1 team in the nation to finish the year ranked top five in the nation.

“We got a lot of guys like that, and I think they recruited guys like us that have been underdogs,” Jones said. “We embrace it. We wouldn’t be here if we wasn’t.”

Jones and all the other transfers feed off the underdog mentality and use it to fuel them every single game. They want to show the world that they can play, and win, at the highest level.

“It’s nothing new to us,” Tre King said. “We love being counted out.”

With Jones being a key part of Iowa State’s success throughout the season, it came as no surprise that he was crucial in bringing Iowa State to the Sweet 16.

After a five-minute drought to start the second round game against Washington State, Jones was the first Cyclone to see the ball go through the net. His 3-pointer woke Iowa State up and helped it get over the Cougars.

“Jones hitting that three early on was a big shot,” Otzelberger said. “He has been that great impactful guard scorer off the bench and playmaker for us when he gets in.”

Not only is Jones’ scoring ability and lockdown defense crucial to the team’s success, but his energy is what makes him a great sixth man. Jones is always smiling and bringing good vibes on and off the court.

Even with the seriousness of every game being more important than the last, the Cyclones still wanted to make it clear that it is supposed to be fun at the end of the day.

“There’s nobody having more fun right now than we are,” Otzelberger said to his team.

That shined through in the final minutes of the game against Washington State. As the Cougars looked to foul Iowa State to stay in the game, Jones caught the inbound pass.

Down the court was his big man that shared the same last name. Jones heaved the ball the length of the court which led to a powerful dunk.

“Shoutout to [Robert Jones] for making me look good,” Curtis Jones said.

From the second Jones got to Iowa State, his smile never faded. Even through his early shooting struggles or losses on the road, Jones stayed positive.

Jones said that he did not think he would ever be in the spot he is in now.

“Now that I am, why not play great?” Jones said.

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    Jeanne Samame | Mar 27, 2024 at 10:00 am

    Awesome player & attitude. Iowa State is the perfect fit for him. We’re lucky to have him be a Cyclone!!