CHATTANOOGA (WRCB) -- A long ride home to Louisiana for Christmas break gave Casey Jones a lot of time to think about his recently-injured knee.
And that wasn't necessarily a good thing.
"When it happened, I had never felt pain like that before," Jones said about landing awkwardly in the second half of the December 21st rout of Rheinhardt. "At that moment, I thought it was over for me."
Head coach John Shulman prayed for a Christmas miracle for his freshman forward, and he got a small one when Jones had an MRI on December 27. Originally feared to be a torn ACL, which would require six-to-eight months of rehab, Jones was diagnosed with a broken tibia.
The remedy: six-to-eight weeks of rest, which ended last week when Jones was fully cleared to return to practice.
"It's crazy how hard it was to be out," said Jones, who passed the time by watching film and studying opponents. "When I got back on the court, I couldn't stop smiling."
Shulman is smiling a bit more, too.
Jones had earned a starting spot from the start of the season with his aggressive play and athleticism. He averaged just 3.8 points and 3.5 rebounds in his eleven games before the injury, but his energy level and defensive presence were hard to replace.
"Casey was starting for a reason," Shulman said. "He wasn't just starting because he's my best buddy. He was starting for a reason, so no doubt we have to find him some minutes."
The plan will be more like finding him one minute at a time when he returns to the lineup Thursday against Furman (7 p.m. ET at McKenzie Arena).
Shulman knows the time off will catch up with Jones in a hurry, especially considering he was just starting to adjust to the speed of the college game when he went down.
"I think he could play about a minute before he passes out," said Shulman, half-joking. "Listen, six weeks of no weight-bearing, that's a long time. That's a long time to not put pressure on that leg."
Jones doesn't know how to do anything halfway, so his plan is to just go out and see how long he can go all-out.
"I'm not the type of person to ease my way into things, so when I get out there I'm going 200-percent," he said with a big smile. "When I get tired in that minute and 30 seconds, I'll guess I'll just be coming back out."
His return gives the Mocs time to build his stamina over the final three weeks of the season, hopefully putting him at near 100-percent for the Southern Conference Tournament in early March.
If that happens, Chattanooga will be back to full strength -- aside from injured point guard Dontay Hampton, who played just five games in the middle of the season due to injury -- for the most important stretch of the season.
"That'd be fun because Casey is one of our best defenders," Shulman said. "One of my former players Ricky Hood always reminded me, 'Offense puts fans in the stands, but defense wins championships.'
"If we can put another great defender out there, we're better defensively and we're better on the glass. That's what wins tournaments."