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‘Icing on the cake’: Rylan Jones returning to Salt Lake City for shot at blue-blood Jayhawks

Samford guard Rylan Jones (21) drives the ball against East Tennessee State guard Allen Strothers (5) during Southern Conference tournament championship game, Monday, March 11, 2024, in Asheville, N.C.
Samford guard Rylan Jones (21) drives the ball against East Tennessee State guard Allen Strothers (5) during Southern Conference tournament championship game, Monday, March 11, 2024, in Asheville, N.C. | Kathy Kmonicek

Rylan Jones knew when Sunday’s NCAA Tournament selection show began there was a one-eighth chance his Samford Bulldogs would be headed to his hometown of Salt Lake City. But he also knew the odds were much greater his team would be headed someplace else for the first round, a more preferred destination for his East Coast teammates like Brooklyn or Memphis or Pittsburgh.

“His college career was a mixed bag of good, bad, ugly, unlucky and everything else, and to see that he was able to get one more year and go across the country and help lead a team to somewhere they’ve never been before, and then to come back home is kind of the icing on the cake.”

Chris Jones, father of Samford's Rylan Jones

So when No. 13 Samford was placed in the Salt Lake City regional to face No. 4 seed Kansas, it prompted a surreal homecoming reaction for the Utah native.

“It was just a crazy moment, honestly, I can’t even describe it. So much happiness I get to go back home and play in Salt Lake City,” said Jones, Samford’s starting point guard who said within two hours of the announcement he had over 60 missed calls and well over a hundred text messages.

When Jones’ family first saw Samford flashed across the screen, his father Chris Jones — a former University of Utah assistant coach — joked that the NCAA Selection Committee’s decision “just saved our family $10,000.”

It also opened the door for many more of Rylan Jones’ family and friends to see him play in person again on Thursday night at 7:55 p.m. as underdog Samford looks to bust some brackets at the Delta Center.

“His college career was a mixed bag of good, bad, ugly, unlucky and everything else, and to see that he was able to get one more year and go across the country and help lead a team to somewhere they’ve never been before, and then to come back home is kind of the icing on the cake,” said Chris Jones.

His son Rylan was a two-time Deseret News Mr. Basketball winner at Olympus High, and then played two years at the University of Utah and two more at Utah State. When he was medically disqualified by Utah State for his final collegiate season, Jones hit the transfer portal when other neurologists cleared him to play, and he fell in love with the message from a coach who pulled him two time zones away to Birmingham, Alabama.

Utah State guard Rylan Jones has reportedly entered the NCAA transfer portal.
Utah State guard Rylan Jones (15) in action against SMU, Friday, Dec. 23, 2022, in Honolulu. | Marco Garcia, Associated Press

Bucky McMillan was an insanely successful high school basketball coach in Alabama when Samford hired him as its new head coach for the 2020-21 season despite zero years of collegiate coaching experience. In high school, he coached his teams to eight state title games in Alabama’s largest classification from 2013 to 2020, five of which resulted in state championships.

In their recruiting conversations, McMillan reminded Jones of his Olympus High coach Matt Barnes, a coach with a laid-back approach who is easy to talk to and makes players laugh.

Samford’s teams improved each of McMillan’s first three years, and he believed a leader at point guard like Jones could really help the program take the step up in winning the Southern Conference and qualify for the NCAA Tournament. He told Jones, “We need you more than you need us,” but he also said something else that really resonated with Jones.

“He told me, ‘How cool would it be to go to a place and lead them to the NCAA Tournament. Yeah, you can go to other schools that it’s expected they go to the NCAA Tournament, but how cool would it be to go somewhere … and put a school on the map that’s not known for basketball,’” recalled Jones. “He told me, ‘I know you had a lot of fun in high school, well I was a high school coach, I know all about having fun. I promise you, if you come here, you’ll have the most fun you’ve ever had,’ and it’s all come to fruition, everything he said on the phone call.”

Samford went on to win the Southern Conference with a three-game cushion in the standings — which included an NCAA-best 17-game winning streak along the way — and then won the conference tournament to secure the automatic NCAA Tournament bid.

“Those three things kind of highlight our year, and the team we have and the competitive and togetherness we have, and how hard we’ve worked since we got out here in June,” said Jones, who will be a bit of a tour guide this weekend in Utah as he doesn’t believe any of his teammates have ever been to Salt Lake City.

Olympus' Rylan Jones celebrates after a 3-point shot as American Fork and Olympus play in the Utah Elite 8 championship game at American Fork on Saturday, Dec. 9, 2017. Olympus won 92-56.
Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

Jones said he had about 15 family members and friends attend the Southern Conference tournament in Ashville, North Carolina, including his former high school coach.

“It was fun just to see him out there playing, healthy and kind of back to the old Ry. Just makes everyone better around him, he makes the right play, makes the extra pass, and then you watch his leadership, he’s kind of the old guy on the squad,” said Barnes.

Jones averaged 9.4 points and 4.9 assists this season for the Bulldogs.

The grad transfer said Samford’s “Bucky Ball” style of pressing defense the whole game is “no joke,” and led to incredibly difficult practices to raise the fitness. Jones — whose middle three years of college ball were often defined by injuries — didn’t miss a game or practice with Samford this season.

Jones said all of his teammates believe they can compete with the blue-blood Kansas team.

“We’ve just got to be us, we’re a unique, special team the way we play. We’re a confident, competitive group, we’re going to go out there thinking we can win, knowing we can win. As coach Bucky always says, we’re the baddest, toughest, hardest-playing dudes that he knows in the country, so we’re going to go out there and do that,” said Jones.

Thursday’s game will be Jones’ second time playing at the Delta Center, his first coming as a freshman for Logan High back in January 2016 when he led the Grizzlies to a 67-52 win over Roy by scoring 19 points.

With an upset of Kansas, Jones would get to play in front of his hometown fans twice this weekend, but if Cinderella’s slipper doesn’t quite fit against Kansas, he’ll relish playing competitively in Utah one final time.

Utah Utes guard Rylan Jones (15) celebrates as Utah and BYU play an NCAA basketball game at the Huntsman Center in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Dec. 4, 2019. Utah won 102-95 in overtime. | Scott G Winterton, Deseret News
Utah Utes guard Rylan Jones (15) celebrates as Utah and BYU play an NCAA basketball game at the Huntsman Center in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Dec. 4, 2019. Utah won 102-95 in overtime. | Scott G Winterton, Deseret News