Jordin Mayes will start the final home game of his Arizona Wildcats career today, and the way some folks talk to him these days, that’s the way it should be.
Often, the soft-spoken senior guard will walk on campus or around town and find people bring up that Elite Eight run in 2011.
“I’ve seen a lot more of that this year,” Mayes said. “A lot of people still believe in me, that I can do what I did that year. People come up to me and tell me I was a big part of winning that year.”
In fact, all those Derrick Williams heroics aside, the fact is that Arizona doesn’t make the 2011 Elite Eight without Mayes, then a freshman who hit 10 straight three-pointers between the Pac-10 tournament and the NCAA tourney. Mayes hit four of them during the Wildcats’ second NCAA tournament game, a one-point win over Texas, putting Arizona into a somewhat unexpected Sweet 16 appearance against Duke.
The tough part of that memory for Mayes is that the highlights didn’t get any better over the next three seasons. UA coach Sean Miller said Saturday that Mayes has earned his start today, and that it’s “not only the right thing” but also the best move for the No. 3 Wildcats as they attempt to clinch the Pac-12 title against Stanford.
But consider this fact: Mayes has played less of a role this season than in any of his prior three at Arizona. He averages only 5.0 minutes, and didn’t play at all in four games.
Since 2011, Mayes has improved in many subtle ways — especially defensively — but also suffered a stress fracture in his foot after his freshman season, had a related setback toward the end of his sophomore campaign, and has always fought a difficult battle for playing time against the increasingly talented players that Miller has brought in.
As a sophomore, he went up against Josiah Turner, then a five-star freshman recruit who fizzled out on and off the court. As a junior, Mayes watched Mark Lyons leave Xavier in order to become UA’s starting point guard. Then this year, T.J. McConnell became eligible after transferring from Duquesne in 2012.
In today’s college basketball culture, the solution to all that is simple: You transfer.
Mayes didn’t. He’ll be honored after UA’s game today in a Senior Day ceremony — along with senior managers Kyle Vasey, Pharoah Green, Trevor Derrett and Joe Keener — because he stuck around through all the adversity.
He wouldn’t have it any other way.
“People come in and leave everywhere,” Mayes said. “As far as me as a person, I’m not in control over who comes in and who doesn’t. I just wanted to play. My injury was a little setback, and I wanted to come back and redeem myself from injury and compete.
“I’m not going to run away from the competition or anything like that. I made that decision.”
And he did so by himself. His father, former UNLV player Darryel Mayes, made that much clear.
“He chose to stay four years at Arizona. I’ll leave it at that,” the elder Mayes said. “He’s a young man learning how to make decisions.”
Darryel Mayes said his son has always shown himself capable when given an opportunity, proving it not only by playing with foot pain during that 2011 tournament run, but also by scoring a career-high 19 points against McConnell and Duquesne during the second game of the 2011-12 season — despite missing some preseason conditioning after undergoing surgery on the foot in the summer leading up to the year.
As it turned out, Turner’s shortcomings led to many of Mayes’ opportunities that season.
Against Duquesne, he started because Turner was late to a pregame shootaround. That was the first of three disciplinary measures taken against Turner, and Mayes soaked up 13 early-season starts in his place.
Mayes also started the final four games of the 2011-12 campaign when Turner was suspended indefinitely, eventually leaving the team after the season.
Miller never had those kinds of issues with Mayes.
“Jordin is one of the most responsible people that I’ve ever coached,” Miller said. “He’s the same every day. He works hard. Always shows up on time. Has a very unselfish attitude. Takes care of business off the court from an academic perspective to where you almost don’t ever hear his name called because he always does what he’s supposed to.
“Today, everybody focuses on the ‘now,’ and sometimes what’s lost is someone like Jordin.”
Mayes was healthy last year as a junior, but that’s when Lyons arrived. Mayes went back to the bench. He played in all 35 games, averaging 11.8 minutes, and much like his freshman season, picked up steam at the end. He scored eight points against Colorado in the Pac-12 tournament, and had a three-pointer, two rebounds and an assist in UA’s NCAA tournament opener against Belmont.
Two days later, Mayes had eight points and three assists against Harvard, and the Wildcats were once again off to the Sweet 16.
Though they were limited, those times on the floor were good times.
“There have been some great moments,” Mayes said. “My freshman year, we won the last Pac-10 championship and went to the Elite Eight, and last year we went to the Sweet 16. This year, we have to do more great things.”
Maybe Mayes will be a big part of those things over the next month. He didn’t play at Cal when forward Brandon Ashley was hurt or in UA’s next game against Oregon. But his playing time since then has increased with Miller’s decision to open up bench play and put less pressure on the starters without Ashley being around.
Still, Mayes is usually the second guard off the bench behind freshman Elliott Pitts, and is averaging only 4.8 minutes in the past five games.
“This year, maybe his role isn’t as big, but he still is someone that players look for him to be a great leader,” Miller said.
“We’re not at the end of our year, so we don’t know what we’re gonna do. But hopefully we can finish strong, and as we reflect back on his four-year time, he’s been a part of some great things that will add to our tradition.”
Indeed, there’s one more chapter to write, and Mayes is usually pretty good at it — the postseason. Maybe he gets another chance to be the Jordin Mayes he was as a freshman — or an even better version — now that he has the defensive skills that earn him teammate Nick Johnson’s respect.
“It’s pretty amazing how he can come in the game off the bench, not get warm or anything, and literally guard the best player for four of five possessions and not give up a bucket,” Johnson said. “It’s definitely a valuable part of our team.”
Then again, maybe his role doesn’t increase that much.
Either way, Mayes will be ready — no matter what kind of playing time he gets.
“I can’t change that. All I can do is, when I get out there, play hard and just try to contribute.”