USA Today Sports’ George Schroeder recaps all the March Madness action from Sunday, including a rough day for two of the ACC’s top teams.
USA TODAY Sports
TULSA — Even now, after 34 games, there are moments when Josh Jackson makes his teammates and coaches just shake their heads.
“He’s always doing some new stuff,” Kansas guard Svi Mykhailiuk said. “I know he’s gonna do something crazy.”
Yeah, we know. We’ll get to that. The story line with Jackson is not simple. It can’t just be about the 6-8 freshman guard’s superlative play. But let’s start there.
Mykhailiuk meant crazy good, and it didn’t take Jackson’s 23-point performance in No. 1 Kansas’ 90-70 win against No. 9 Michigan State to know he is clearly playing his final stretch of college basketball. Whenever the season ends, he’ll head to the NBA — he’s clearly more than ready — but it might be a while yet, and he’ll provide plenty of highlights along the way.
In the second half, when the Jayhawks finally pulled away from the Spartans, they got big plays from everywhere in their four-guard lineup. But it all began with Jackson. Recognizing his familiarity with so many of the players and the Michigan State program — he’s from Detroit — Kansas’ coaches had tried to calm him before the game.
“I didn’t listen,” he said. “I was too amped up.”
It showed, maybe, when he missed his first three shots, or in the two first-half fouls. But what also was evident was yet another part of his multifaceted game. Twice in the first half, Jackson stationed himself low near the basket, called for the ball and then spun and elevated for turnaround jumpers — one a swish, the other a bank shot. The degree of difficulty was extreme. He made it look easy.
In the second half, as Michigan State grinded — in that way, it had become a classic Tom Izzo team — and the outcome hung in the balance, making a decidedly pro-Kansas crowd at the BOK Center palpably uneasy, Jackson just elevated his entire game. He took the Jayhawks along with him.
He drove for a layup, then converted a free throw to stretch a one-point lead back to four. Next, he buried a nifty step-back three-pointer over Michigan State’s Miles Bridges, another talented freshman and a longtime friend. Moments later, he stepped back again, this time for a 19-footer that left Bridges gesturing in frustration. Later, he punctuated the victory by driving the lane for a tomahawk dunk.
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“There were five minutes when he showed everything,” Kansas coach Bill Self said. “Beating you off the bounce, making threes off the catch, making threes off the bounce, finishing through contact.
“He kind of put us on his back there for a stretch.”
He might carry them all the way to a national championship — starting Thursday, when they face No. 4 Purdue in Kansas City, Mo., in the Sweet 16. But of course, here’s where it gets complicated.
Kansas’ season has been accompanied by myriad off-court issues. Jackson has been smack in the middle of a lot of it — mostly stemming from an incident Dec. 9 when he was charged with a misdemeanor after allegedly doing almost $3,000 damage to the car of a Kansas women’s basketball player outside a bar in Lawrence, Kan. According to an affidavit released last Thursday, he threatened to “beat her ass.” He’s also among five Kansas players listed as witnesses in a police investigation of an alleged rape in the residence hall where the basketball team lives.
He was never publicly disciplined for the December incident, though he has apologized for it and was suspended for a game last week in the Big 12 Tournament for a February traffic offense (he backed into a parked car, then left without leaving his contact information). Last Thursday when the affidavit became public, he told reporters he had made mistakes and learned from them.
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So yeah, it’s not an easy March narrative. Regardless, you have to appreciate what Jackson can do on the court — what he’s done all season, what he did to Michigan State — and recognize how much he has meant to Kansas’ success.
The Jayhawks can shoot and play defense and they do everything very fast. They’re led by senior guard Frank Mason III (USA TODAY Sports’ national player of the year). Junior guard Devonte Graham is a consistent three-point threat with a flair for clutch. Landen Lucas is playing consistent basketball (10 points, 11 rebounds against the Spartans) at the best possible time.
“Frank is our best, most consistent player,” Self said. “But Josh’s ceiling is so much higher — it’s about as high as anybody’s in the country when he’s playing well.”
The Jayhawks are much more than Jackson. But they also know, no matter what he does — or maybe what he’s done — they need him to win.
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