Jackson, Jones Jr. reunite to lead Catamounts into SoCon tourney

CULLOWHEE, NC – Ever since their second grade at Round Top Elementary school, Russell Jones Jr. and Tre’ Jackson have been balling.

“I was a new student and was going out to play on the courts at recess,” Jackson said about the meeting. “Russell picked me up and we’ve been together ever since.”

By third grade, they were on a national AAU team, traveling the country and playing top competition. When their time in AAU was done, they were competing against each other—Jackson a point guard at Blythewood, and Jones a point guard at Westwood.

In high school, Jackson helped the Bengals to a state championship appearance in 2017 and to the lower state championship game in 2018. Meanwhile Jones led Westwood to a 25-2 record his senior season and took the Redhawks to the third round of the playoffs the previous year.

Only their college careers took them away from each other, for three years at least.

Jones, a 1,000-point scorer for the Redhawks who was named the SCHSL’s 4A player of the year, moved on to play at Winthrop. Jackson, also a 1,000-point scorer for the Bengals and made All-State, headed for Iowa State.

Apart, with Jones playing in the Sun Belt conference and Jackson playing in the Big 12, both players learned the ropes of playing college ball.

Jones said he looked up to Winthrop assistant coach Justin Gray in his first two seasons.

“He was there after practice and before practice, and he instilled confidence in me,” Jones said. “He always helped me in getting over that learning curve professionally. He’s a great coach.

When Gray took the head coaching job at Western Carolina in 2021, Jones thought of following his coach, but stayed with Winthrop for his third year, helping the Eagles to a 23-9 overall record and a 14-2 Big South Conference record. That was the year Jones felt Winthrop had a real shot at reaching the NCAA Tournament. Indeed, the Eagles won their first two games of the Big South Tournament, but the season came to an end with a 79-58 loss to Longwood.

With 2022 done, Jones looked to Gray and the team in Cullowhee, NC.

Meanwhile, Jackson was playing out his college career with the Cyclones.

“I loved it there, it was great,” he said. “We went through a lot of ups and downs in my first year,” he began, noting that Iowa State finished 12-20 in 2019-2020 but went 2-22 in 2020-2021. “The second year was covid and that was tough, we went through a lot. I learned a lot of patience, learned different things about my growth as a man and on the court.”

The Cyclones rebounded in Jackson’s third year with a 22-13 record and finished 7-11 in the Big 12. Before that year, Jackson thought abstractly about where he should plot his college career. Head coach T.J. Otzelberger convinced Jackson to stay.

“Coach T.J. wanted me to be the guy for Tyrese Hunter,” Jackson said about mentoring the 6-0 freshman guard. “I learned a lot about good leadership and being a good teammate and improving my game and mental toughness that year.”

Hunter averaged 11.0 points per game that year and was a key player in the Cyclones’ NCAA run to the Sweet 16. But when Hunter transferred to play for the Longhorns in his native Texas after the season ended, Jackson felt like he ought to venture out as well. He had kept in touch with Jones, and when he found out Jones transferred to Western Carolina, he thought that the Cullowhee University might have something to offer him as well.

“For me I didn’t know anything about Cullowhee or anything about Western Carolina. I trusted Russell and Coach Gray and Coach (Zach) Freesman (an assistant Gray pulled from Winthrop),” Jackson said. “I saw the scenery and saw the life in the mountains. It was a different environment and I really liked it, I like being outside.”

The court results of Jackson and Jones being on the same floor have proven that both players’ decisions have impacted the team as well as themselves. Jackson’s scoring average is the team’s highest at 15.6 points per game. Jones averages 9.8 points.

Beyond scoring averages, the two know they made the right decision in playing for the Catamounts. 

“This year we’ve been able to play our game,” Jones said. “With how the coaching staff worked with us, they were always instilling confidence in us, and we’re playing for a coach where you don’t have to look over your shoulder when you make a mistake. He just lets us play.”

Added Jackson, “It feels great. It’s a blessing to be honest. That we put in the work on knowing we had the best time what we can do on the court and as a coaching staff too.”

Both have one year eligibility following this season.

“It’s a two-year process,” Jones said about the decision to play at Western Carolina. “We’re putting a lot of work in, knowing we’re both coming back and picking up where we left off.”

The Catamounts 17-14, finished Southern Conference play at 10-8. They head to Asheville’s Harrah’s Cherokee Center Saturday for the SoCon tournament as a No.4 seed. They tip off with No.5 East Tennessee State Saturday at 2:30.

“It’s been great this season,” Jackson said. “We’ve had ups and downs but we’re getting better and we want to get to the NCAA tournament. We’re going to do what we can to be there.”

“Everybody on our team can go (start),” Jones said. “And when you play with a staff that instills confidence and works with you on the court and in the weight room, good things can happen. We just play our game and we’re ready to do something special together.”

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