Kevin Haskin: Inspired by Sparty, Jackson boosts KU into Sweet 16

Freshman guard nets game-high 23, shows off versatility in 90-70 romp

Kansas guard Josh Jackson celebrates sinking a 3-point basket against Michigan State in the first half of Sunday night’s game at BOK Center in Tulsa, Okla. The Jayhawks won the second-round contest, 90-70, to advance to the Sweet 16 in the NCAA Tournament. (The Associated Press)

TULSA, Okla. — Josh Jackson can tell you a lot about Michigan, the state, and Michigan State, the basketball team.

 

Little of it was used in what chatter was exchanged on the floor Sunday when he opposed several friends on the team he grew up cheering in his Detroit home. In fact, Jackson claimed there was little trash tossed around.

“Not that much. Not as much as I thought there would be, to be honest,’’ Jackson said.

Maybe Jackson decided to leave well enough alone and not share the courtside conversation. Why should he? The box score revealed enough. Jackson’s game-high 23 points carried the Jayhawks past the Spartans, 90-70 in the second round of the NCAA Tournament at BOK Center.

“Josh, he made some plays and he scored at every level,’’ Bill Self said after recording his eighth 30-win season as KU coach. “He got 3s off the catch, off the bounce, mid-range, driving it, finishing through traffic, I mean he showed a lot of stuff. Granted, I hope everybody makes every shot, but the reality of it is we can run better offense.’’

The game was different for Jackson, especially when matched against an old friend, Miles Bridges, who posted 22 points and eight rebounds after overcoming some soreness that kept him out 4-plus minutes in the first half.

The sight of old friends, Sparty, Tom Izzo and the tradition Michigan State carries inspired Jackson to show all his versatility.

Too much so, perhaps, as Jackson stubbed a dunk attempt for his first miss and did not connect until the 9:52 mark of the first half.

“I was really excited,’’ he conceded. “One of the things coach told me was to come out and try not to be too excited. They knew I would be. I didn’t listen. I was a little too amped up to play.

“As time went by throughout the game, seeing a couple of shots fall, just trying to play defense and let the game slow down a little bit by playing defense. After a while it became easier.’’

Yet this was Michigan State. And Izzo, the all-time winningest coach in tourney history as a lower seed.

A five-point possession generated off a weak taunting technical assessed to the Jayhawks’ Lagerald Vick enabled the Spartans to slice the lead to 69-64 with 7:14 left.

That seemed like a potential pratfall for KU, gifting the Spartans free points and letting them hang around.

Only the Jayhawks weren’t paying much attention to the lore of Michigan State mojo. Particularly the one player who knows it best, an engaged freshman bound for the NBA, but yet to pack his bags.

Jackson scored 14 second-half points and was so into it that when he did not get a call after being shoved into the scorer’s table late in the game, he pleaded his case to referee Gene Steratore.

He didn’t need to argue. At that point the game was decided. Jackson already put the emphatic punctuation on the win with 2:05 left, when he raced down the lane for a massive dunk as part of a closing 21-6 flurry.

“A lot of anger,’’ said teammate Dwight Coleby. “You saw the first dunk he tried to do and he missed. I saw the anger. He was trying to throw down. I think he got them back.’’

Penciling in a projected NCAA Tournament performance for a one-and-done KU freshman is an exercise that has required an eraser.

Andrew Wiggins, the best one-year NBA prospect to play in the NCAA Tournament for KU, scored just four points in his last game for the Jayhawks when they were ousted in the second round by Stanford just three years ago.

Most of the one-and-dones who played for Self do not spark great NCAA memories. Sometimes the images are even cruel, like the foot injury that sidelined Joel Embiid during that same tourney Wiggins played in.

Jackson, however, seems different. Has from Day 1. His consistency all year has been extraordinary. Same for his passion. Throw Sparty into the mix and he was off the charts.

“He wanted this game so, so bad,’’ Vick said. “He wanted to just step on their necks, like coach was telling us to.’’

Still, this was only the first weekend.

The Big Ten Tournament continues for Kansas at Sprint Center.

That league’s regular-season champion, Purdue, is up next in the Sweet 16. Michigan, the Big Ten Tournament champion, is a possibility in the Elite Eight. By then, those rumors of KU joining the Big Ten in the next round of conference realignment may be churning full blast.

Forget that, however. Know that the road KU travels in the immediate future is not far at all — a short trip to Sprint Center, which will attract a partisan crowd, but the Jayhawks know that venue is not LifeLock safe after stumbling in the Big 12 Tournament.

Any game can be the last for Jackson with KU, and he’s playing like it.

To make a statement against friends from back home and the coach he was once “star struck’’ to meet … well, that’s a nice springboard into the Midwest Regional.

“I do think Josh likes competitive games,’’ Self said. “And you know, I’m not going to coach him that much longer and the only games we have left are competitive games, so hopefully he’ll stay on a roll.’’

Contact Kevin Haskin at kevin.haskin@cjonline.com or @KevinHaskin on Twitter.

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