The Tennessee men’s basketball coaching staff breathed a sigh of relief when signed letters of intent from guards Chris Jones and Kevin Ware arrived via fax Wednesday.
“Holding on to these guys wasn’t easy, because everybody and their brothers came after them,’’ UT coach Bruce Pearl said. “We signed two great guards. It came down to family and loyalty, and it came down to them believing in us.
“We’re still in business.’’
The program has been under the microscope since the school announced on Sept. 10 that it had received a letter of inquiry from the NCAA.
UT announced a number of self-imposed sanctions which included an off-campus recruiting ban that started on Sept. 24 and remains in effect.
Jones and Ware maintained they would stay faithful to their verbal commitments, regardless of speculation in the national media about the ongoing investigation.
“I’ll always appreciate their loyalty,’’ Pearl said. “That’s something I’ll never forget about these two guys.’’
Jones is a 5-foot-10 point guard at Oak Hill (N.C.) Military Academy who’s ranked No. 39 overall by Rivals.com and No. 56 by Scout.com.
“One of the toughest little guys I know,’’ said Pearl, comparing Jones’ style to former South Carolina star Devan Downey. “He plays with a major chip on his shoulder.’’
So major, in fact, that Jones has already made a promise to the UT fan base.
“We’ll never lose another (exhibition) game like that again once I’m there,’’ Jones said, referring to Tennessee’s 79-64 loss to Indianapolis on Monday night at Thompson-Boling Arena. “I’ve heard Indianapolis played hard, but we’ll play harder. I feel like I’m going to come up there and be a leader.’’
Pearl laughed when hearing of Jones’ pledge.
“That’s Chris Jones,’’ Pearl said. “He’s a very confident, competent player.’’
Pearl saw that in Jones long ago, when he started following Jones his sophomore year at Melrose High School in Memphis.
“The thing with Chris Jones, he rewarded our loyalty,’’ Pearl said. “I was watching him as a sophomore, before it was fashionable, and I saw something special in his game. He has a toughness you can’t teach.’’
Jones led Melrose to the Class AAA state championship last year, scoring 35 points in the title game en route to winning tourney MVP honors. He averaged 20.5 points, 6.8 rebounds and 6.1 assists last season, earning all-state honors and boosting Melrose to a No. 15 finish in the ESPN Rise Fab 50 national rankings.
Jones, who transferred to the North Carolina military school last summer, said he’s no more concerned about his relative lack of height now than before.
“I just stay in the gym and keep working hard to prove people wrong, like I always have,’’ Jones said. “Tennessee has been my dream school, and that’s why I signed and I’ll be coming there.’’
Ware, from Rockdale County High School in Conyers, Ga., is rated as the No. 56 overall player by Rivals.com and No. 91 by Scout.com. He was ranked No. 22 by Rivals.com last summer before breaking a bone in his hand at an AAU tournament in July.
“I quit looking at those rankings because they kept dropping me, I guess because I wasn’t playing after I hurt my hand,’’ said Ware, who played with the Atlanta Celtics AAU club.
A 6-foot-4 combo guard, Ware averaged 19 points, seven rebounds, six assists and 3.5 blocks per game last season while earning second team all-state honors. As a sophomore, Ware averaged 16 points, 8.5 assists and eight rebounds and was named his district’s player of the year.
“He’s as athletic of a guard as we’ve had here,’’ Pearl said. “He’s good at going fast, quick, athletic, long and hard to keep out of the lane.
“I hate to compare him to John Wall (formerly of Kentucky), because he’s not there yet, but he has that type of quickness and athleticism.’’
The Vols are still looking to sign a wing and/or a post in this signing class. The early signing period runs through next Wednesday. The spring signing period begins on the second Wednesday of April.
Mike Griffith covers Tennessee men’s basketball. He may be reached at 865-755-5599. Follow him at http://twitter.com/mgrif32 and http://blogs.knoxnews.com/askgriff/