Demetrius Jackson, front, center and ready as Irish leader

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — Heartbreak and ache hovered heavily inside the cramped quarters of a locker room just off a main corridor of Quicken Loans Arena.

Notre Dame men’s basketball coach Mike Brey surveyed the scene last March minutes after the Irish saw their dream run through the NCAA tournament end at the hands of then-No. 1 and then-still undefeated Kentucky at the Midwest Regional finals in Cleveland.

The school’s first trip to the Final Four since 1978 was right there for the going, but then it was all gone. Over. Done. Finished.

As his players sat stone-faced and silent, Brey’s mind was already working. While many were trying to process what had just happened — a postseason run the program had not experienced since 1979 had come to a crashing end — the head coach, while running on his own fumes for myriad reasons, decided to jump ahead to the fall.

He rose from a seat that was placed in front of the group — Brey had been so worn down by all that had occurred in March that by the end, he barely had enough energy to stand — and went directly to then-sophomore guard Demetrius Jackson, seated in a corner stall with his head down.

Losing to Kentucky not only sent Notre Dame home for the rest of the spring, but closed the curtain on the college careers of seniors Pat Connaughton and Jerian Grant, the team’s two leaders and main reasons why 32 victories, an Atlantic Coast Conference tournament championship and run to the Elite Eight were possible.

With Connaughton and Grant moving on to the NBA — both were taken in the June draft — Brey knew the leadership void would be massive. That’s why he went to Jackson, bent over and whispered in the guard’s ear.

“I said, ‘You and me are running this thing now,’” Brey recalled earlier this summer. “He’s very ready to deliver as a junior — to do more, to lead more, to be that guy on a daily basis.”

Jackson’s immediate reaction to Brey’s words? He smiled.

He smiled, because the leadership role with this program at this time is something he’s craved since he set foot on campus from Mishawaka as a McDonald’s All-American. Yet it also was one he never quite understood how to handle his first two seasons, as he grappled to first find his place in the program. But on that quiet Saturday night/early Sunday morning in Northeast Ohio, everything was clear amid the clutter — this was going to be his team.

Now it is.

“No question,” Brey said Tuesday during Media Day. “It’s his voice. He loves it. He welcomes it. I’m thrilled that he’s so confident in that position.”

Jackson believes he’s in that center-square leadership position not only for how he’s weathered the first two years — first, survive, then, thrive —but because his teammates have recognized that it’s a role that suits him. Jackson has plenty of help in the leadership department, be it seniors Zach Auguste and Austin Burgett or juniors V.J. Beachem and Steve Vasturia, that allow him to be who he is.

“It feels good, just all the hard work you put into it and see it pay off a little bit,” Jackson said Tuesday. “Guys are still getting more confident in me. Just trying to develop my leadership skills every day and just get better.”

So far, so good.

“He’s been great,” said Beachem. “His voice defensively has especially grown for us. It’s something that we need at the point of attack.”

Jackson’s leadership skills were first seen in late June during the program’s first summer basketball camp session. Playing pickup ball one night at Rolfs Student Center, a game stalled when freshmen guards Rex Pflueger and Matt Ryan couldn’t agree on an out-of-bounds call.

Pflueger was guarding Ryan at one end of the floor when the ball was knocked/fumbled away. Ryan insisted Pflueger had reached in and knocked it away. Pflueger believed the ball had bounced off Ryan.

Both rookies held their ground until Jackson, at the far end of the floor, motioned to the freshmen to check the ball at his end — basically saying that the ball was off Ryan.

Ryan reacted with exasperation. Next time down when there again was a break in the action, Jackson walked over to Ryan to explain the decision.

Ryan nodded, then went back to work.

"He’s been through it all,” Ryan said of Jackson. “Non-stop, he’s just always giving you advice, how to come off a screen, how to defend.

“The leaders on this team are just a lot of dudes who get their stuff done.”

Six practices into 2015-16, Jackson is already secure with his voice being the most consistent, sometimes the loudest and most demanding. Brey first saw it coming last December, how Jackson had a lot of Ben Hansbrough in him when it comes to leadership. Brey often liked to say that the former Irish guard and 2011 Big East Player of the Year could heat a building up or burn it down with his style.

Jackson had his "Hansbrough" on display during a conditioning test days before the first official practice. Two teammates barely passed. They heard about it.

“He was on them,” Brey said. “He challenges guys.”

Not only is Jackson more secure with challenging a teammate, he’s more mature in handling being challenged. He no longer bristles if called out or makes a mistake, as was the case early in his career.

Just the other day, while working through game situations that are staples of every Irish practice, Jackson committed a turnover but refused to pout.

Had that happened early last year or anytime during his freshman season, Jackson might have sulked. Instead, he accepted the moment and moved on to his business in a mature, business-like manner.

“That’s one thing I’m still working on,” he said. “Next play, let’s bounce back quick.

“Now we want to take it to the next level.”

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Notre Dame junior guard Demetrius Jackson is comfortable as the unquestioned vocal and emotional leader this season.SBT Photo/BECKY MALEWITZ