Simple now works for Irish G Demetrius Jackson

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

Seeing the sights of a land he never dreamed of visiting and spending time learning what makes his teammates tick was an important part of the August foreign tour of Italy for Notre Dame sophomore guard Demetrius Jackson.

But it was what happened with Jackson on the basketball court that most mattered. After a freshman year spent trying to figure it all out, and not always having an answer, Jackson was able to get back in gear during his first trip overseas.

Starting and playing well in four exhibition games helped Jackson again feel good about his game. Really good.

“It was definitely a good trip for me personally,” Jackson said. “It helped me out with confidence. It helped me out getting close to my team and helped me open up more to the guys.

“It helped me become more comfortable with just the whole system.”

Comfortable because simple works better for Jackson, who was as electric as any prep senior in Michiana in recent memory while earning McDonald’s All-American honors and becoming the all-time leading scorer in Northern Indiana Conference history (1,934 career points) at nearby Marian High School.

Back then, when he was averaging 25.9 points, 5.7 rebounds and 2.9 assists as a senior, Jackson could affect games in numerous ways. He would score. He would find open teammates. He would defend. He would dunk. He would dominate.

In Italy, Jackson found himself working in an entirely new role. He didn’t have to dominate. He sometimes didn’t have to score. Irish coach Mike Brey asked Jackson to run the team as a starting guard. He asked him to facilitate the offense and make confident decisions. He asked him to pressure the ball and be the point man on an attacking, aggressive defense. And he asked him not to worry about his shot, his scoring or his stat line.

“Everything else that kind of happens,” Brey said, “is gravy.”

It didn’t take long for Jackson to embrace the role. During the tour’s second game, Brey noticed something different about the guard and his game.

“I said to him, ‘I think we’ve all found your role,’” Brey said. “He looked at me and nodded like, ‘Yeah, I got this.’”

Following an 11-point, five-assist, three-steal effort in the final exhibition, he earned most valuable player honors. Most important of all, Jackson looked like he belonged, like he was certain in his next step, something that wasn’t always the case last season when he would attempt to attack the defense, then put on the brakes near the free-throw line, not sure of his next dribble.

In Italy, he finished plays, and finished confidently.

“The biggest thing was my decision-making,” Jackson said. “My decision-making definitely got better than last year.”

Last year was a long one for the 6-foot-1 Jackson. Arriving on campus with all his prep accolades, he was counted on to be a key guy while learning the guard ropes from veterans Eric Atkins and Jerian Grant. All that changed when Grant was dismissed for the spring semester following an “academic misstep.” With the Irish in need of another guard to be really good in a league full of them, Jackson struggled to figure out where he fit. What was his role? Was he expected to score big like Grant? Facilitate more like Atkins? Do some of both?

The more he wondered, the more his game and his confidence crumbled. It all bottomed out the week of Feb. 9. Three days after going for two points, two assists and two turnovers in 11 minutes during the home loss to North Carolina, Jackson was a no-show for the Feb. 11 home game against Clemson. Following the double-overtime victory, Brey announced that Jackson was taking time off to concentrate on his academics. He would miss two games and a week of practices before returning with a career-high 17 points in a near-miss at Miami (Fla.).

A player availability session earlier this month was the first opportunity for Jackson to address what happened last season.

“I’m just very hard on myself,” Jackson said. “I wasn’t very happy about how I was performing so that led to a little slippage in the classroom and things like that. Just take that lesson and learn from it and grow as a person.”

Jackson made 15 starts in 30 games as a freshman. He averaged 6.0 points, 2.1 rebounds and 1.8 assists in 22.2 minutes. He shot 42 percent from the floor, 41.7 percent from 3 and 78 percent from the foul line. It seemed a season worth forgetting, but was it?

“It was fun; it’s college basketball,” Jackson said. “This is what we dream of; it’s what I’ve dreamed of, at least. Just to be on this stage, when the games we lost, losing’s not fun but it was definitely a great experience to be there. Not everybody gets this opportunity.

“It was definitely fun, but hopefully this year can be more fun.”

Time for Torres?

Jackson isn’t the only former Michiana-area high school basketball standout who could be ready for a larger role with the Irish this season.

Former Penn product Austin Torres, who sat out last year to preserve a year of eligibility has been on Brey’s mind a whole lot before, during and after the foreign tour.

The 6-foot-7 active and athletic sophomore impressed with his hustle plays – blocking shots, rebounding, the occasional put-back dunk, running the floor and just being active and energetic.

The coaching staff noticed.

“He made some athletic plays (in Italy) that were reminiscent of Ryan Humphrey,” Brey said. “It was that kind of bounce and energy.

“I think he really understands it and I keep telling him, ‘You’ve got a spot if you do these things and keep it simple and not try to do too much. You’re carving your niche.’”

Torres enters preseason practice outside the top eight of the rotation, but has a chance to work himself into the mix, unlike last year.

“If there was a pleasant surprise on the trip, it was Austin Torres,” Brey said. “He has a role.”

Torres averaged 18 points, 10 rebounds and three blocks his senior season at Penn.

Schedule stuff

Two regular-season games that were void of start times when the Notre Dame schedule was released have since been set.

Notre Dame’s home game against Chicago State on Nov. 29 – the Saturday of Thanksgiving weekend – will tip at 2 p.m., which all but assures the Notre Dame-USC football game that day in Los Angeles will be an evening start.

And Notre Dame’s game against Purdue in the Crossroads Classic on Dec. 20 will start at 5:15. It will be the back end of the annual doubleheader at Bankers Life Fieldhouse in downtown Indianapolis. The first game – Butler vs. Indiana – starts at 2:30.

Notre Dame guard Demetrius Jackson struggled as a freshman but is more comfortable heading into his second season.AP File Photo/JOE RAYMOND