A decade ago at this time of year, the Jones household was almost as hectic. Engulfed in the excitement of March Madness, Debbie and her oldest son, Jadee, would fill out brackets, along with little Tyus, who was already devouring basketball any way he could.
The family would stage a competition to see whose bracket fared best and argue about every matchup, especially the one that yielded the champion.
This year, finally, there will be a consensus.
Tyus Jones, in his heralded freshman season, has helped lead Duke to an NCAA tournament No. 1 seed, and the Blue Devils have as good a chance as anyone to upset favorite Kentucky and seize the national title.
Consider it a dream come true for the Apple Valley native and basketball devotee who says the game “consumed” his life from a young age.
“This was always the best time of year, I think, for myself growing up,” he said. “I’ll for sure have butterflies.”
If he does, don’t be surprised if you don’t notice. All year, Jones — who averages 11.6 points and 5.8 assists per game — has played with the steadiness of a veteran point guard and has already developed a reputation for producing in clutch situations. In seven regular-season games against ranked teams, Jones averaged 17.7 points and 6.3 assists. Nationally, he has the second-best assist-to-turnover ratio of any freshman in Division I.
And he does all this while playing the role of floor general for the nation’s fourth-ranked team.
“It’s just so awesome to see him continue to mature and grow and develop,” Debbie said. “It’s almost surreal … you believe in him, you know he can do these things, you just never know how it’s going to turn out. And he just continues to flourish.”
These days, Jones rooms on Duke’s lush campus with best friend and national player of the year candidate Jahlil Okafor — or “Jah,” as he’s known around Durham. Like any normal college freshmen, they play video games — “Injustice” is the hot pick of the moment — occasionally struggle to keep their new home clean and have to listen to their parents needle them about whether they’re eating enough breakfast. Debbie recently sent her son some homemade banana bread to help that cause.
In between, they are figuring out how to be teenage superstars together.
Tyus got an intro to celebrity status in Minnesota, where fans of his impressive high school career would occasionally approach the family at Denny’s. Now, when his family visits and takes him out to dinner, they’ve learned to expect four or five people per sitting to ask for autographs.
After the North Carolina home game, Debbie was back at the hotel restaurant when ESPN flashed highlights of that night’s game, heavy on Tyus appearances. For a moment, still, she was caught off guard.
Where her son will be in a couple of months, after the season is over, is yet to be determined. On Tuesday, Tyus wouldn’t say whether he is considering entering the NBA draft. Now is the time for brackets, for the culmination of childhood hopes and a lifetime of preparation.
“I’m just focusing on the goal of winning a national championship right now,” he said.
Count his family in on that same agenda.
Tuesday night, Debbie was scrambling to fill out her bracket to once again compare with those of her sons, now including youngest Tre, a freshman guard at recently crowned Class 4A champion Apple Valley.
“I think the winner is pretty clear,” she said. “It’s the other games we’ll struggle with.”