ND's Demetrius Jackson returns to arena where he found leadership

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

DURHAM, N.C. — Amid the bedlam that busted out in that bandbox of a gym, Notre Dame guard Demetrius Jackson decided to finally speak out.

It was early in the first half of an Atlantic Coast Conference game against Duke last February. At one point in the opening 20 minutes, the Irish were on the wrong end of a staggering 45-10 score, even after the visitors scored the first six points.

That had quieted the crowd for a few possessions. It was all Blue Devils the rest of the way as Notre Dame coach Mike Brey burned timeout after timeout in an attempt to try something, anything, to cool off the other guys and get his going.

During one early huddle, Jackson spoke. Loudly. Defiantly. Angrily. He challenged his veteran teammates to be better, including then-seniors Pat Connaughton and Jerian Grant who were a little wide-eyed and wondering in that surrounding. Brey looked at his two leaders and saw that for really the only time last season, they seemed “shell-shocked.”

Jackson also challenged himself to be better. He promised to back it up the rest of the way, and wondered aloud if anyone would follow.

It mattered little. The Irish couldn’t get out of town fast enough after a 90-60 beat down. It was the most lopsided loss for Brey during his tenure at Notre Dame. The Irish lost in every area. Every area but one.

They won after finding their future voice in Jackson.

“We were getting our butts kicked and I just tried to get everybody pumped up,” remembered Jackson, who leads Notre Dame (11-5; 2-2 ACC) into Cameron Indoor Stadium on Saturday for the first time since that day. “I was really vocal, really passionate and it just kind of took off from there. It stood out because it was kind of a quiet night for us.

“We were down, but I was trying to inspire my teammates.”

Working in a leadership role is something Jackson long dreamed of doing long before he decided to play college basketball down the road from his Mishawaka home. He was nowhere near ready as a freshman when he spent a frustrating year trying to figure it all out. He was a little more prepared as a sophomore, but with Connaughton and Grant running everything on the bus, in the locker room, on the practice court and during games, Jackson could quietly pick his spots — like in Cameron — to have his say. Otherwise, he would wait his turn.

Time to lead

Jackson’s turn arrived in the fall when the 6-foot-1, 201-pound junior was named one of three captains alongside seniors Zach Auguste and A.J. Burgett. Jackson’s classmate, Steve Vasturia, was added to the role earlier this month. Now just over halfway through the 2015-16 regular season, there’s no mistake whose voice carries the most weight.

“I felt I was born to be vocal, be a leader,” Jackson said. “It just feels natural doing these things. I’m just always trying to help others be the best they can be.

“Being a leader for this team is going to help me be a leader in life.”

Leading means trying a little of everything to keep the Irish headed down the right road regardless of whether everything’s going good or struggles surface. Some days, he’ll speak up. Other days, he’ll let his actions talk for him. He demands and expects a lot from himself, and demands and expects a lot from his teammates.

The balancing act is tricky. When is it time for tough love? When is it time to just be tough?

“You use a little bit of sugar, a little bit of spice,” Jackson said. “Each night is a different challenge where you have to rise to the occasion. It makes you grow, makes you a better person on and off the court.”

Early in his leadership role, Jackson admittedly was too tough on teammates. Like during the NCAA tournament last March when Auguste tried to do too much with the ball instead of getting it to a guard late in regulation during the third-round overtime victory over Butler. In that instance, Jackson showed his fiery side. He’s since discovered there are other ways to lead besides yelling.

Now when he talks to Auguste about being better, say getting into screen and roll, he’ll coolly remind him that if he does arrive to screen and then roll on time, he’ll get a dunk. Instead of barking at power forward Bonzie Colson to get a defensive rebound, he’ll mention to the sophomore that the Irish can get out and run in transition if he grabs the next miss.

“It’s not always about cursing at somebody or screaming at somebody,” Jackson said. “There are times as a leader where you have to call people out (but) positive energy is contagious, so I always try to build people up and not break them down.”

Jackson has earned the respect of his teammates, who know that when he speaks, they need to listen.

“He has all the talent in the world and he just has that will to win,” said freshman guard Rex Pflueger, often asked to guard Jackson in practice. “He’s been through it; he’s experienced. He wants to win and it’s really inspiring to watch that.”

Better days

Jackson is a shell of that player that first set foot on campus as a freshman. Brey wondered, and maybe even worried, if the McDonald’s High School All-American would ever get to the point where he’s often “running the building” in the way Grant and former Irish guard Ben Hansbrough used to. But Jackson’s come a long way from the week he spent separated from the program that first year, time that Brey insisted Jackson needed to clear his mind, start fresh and just play. Grow.

“Man, he had some big hurdles as a freshman,” Brey said. “When you’re a teacher and you see a pupil develop and get better, that’s really fulfilling.”

Jackson took one of his biggest leadership steps this season during the Dec. 2 game at Illinois, a program that finished second for his services. In the first half that night in Champaign, Jackson was a mess. He almost wanted to play so well that he played poorly. The younger Jackson would have let effort drift into the second half and maybe into the next game. The older Jackson vowed in the locker room at halftime to be better.

Jackson finished with 21 points, four assists and two rebounds in 37 minutes.

“I thought to myself, ‘Man, I don’t know how this thing’s going to end, but that’s unbelievable for him,’” Brey said. “He’s really made progress there. I’m really proud of how far he’s come.”

Lost in all the defensive struggles of Notre Dame early in conference play has been Jackson’s rock-solid work. A first team all-conference preseason pick, Jackson would get serious league player of the year steam if the Irish were a little better. Heading into Saturday’s game against No. 9 Duke (14-3; 3-1), Jackson is fifth in the league in scoring (17.1), second in assists (5.4), fourth in minutes (35.9) and fifth in assist/turnover ratio (2.0). Against Georgia Tech, he toyed with the second triple-double in school history before finishing with 18 points, including 13-of-14 from the free throw line, a season-high nine rebounds and eight assists in 39 minutes.

“He’s having an unbelievable season for us,” Brey said. “It’s hard to take him out of the game, but we’ve lived that life before with my point guards here.”

Given Notre Dame’s current conference standing (ninth place), given that the Irish are nowhere near the national rankings and given how Notre Dame crumbled in its previous visit to Cameron, many expect another long afternoon. Jackson's ready to show otherwise.

“Being counted out doesn’t really matter,” he said. “As long as you believe, anything is possible.”

tnoie@ndinsider.com

(574) 235-6153

@tnoieNDI

WHO: Notre Dame (11-5 overall; 2-2 ACC) vs. No. 9 Duke (14-3; 3-1).

WHERE: Cameron Indoor Stadium (9,314), Durham, N.C.

WHEN: Saturday at 2 p.m.

TV: ESPN2.

RADIO: WSBT (960 AM, 96.1 FM).

ONLINE: Follow every Notre Dame game with live updates from Tribune beat writer Tom Noie at twitter.com@tnoieNDI.

WORTH NOTING: Sophomore guard Grayson Allen scored 17 points and freshman forward Brandon Ingram added 16 in Duke’s 68-63 loss Wednesday at Clemson. … Duke also has lost neutral-site games to Kentucky and Utah. … Allen ranks second in the league in scoring at 20.3. His +15.9 points per game improvement over last season would rank best in ACC history. … Duke is ranked in the Associated Press poll for the 165th consecutive week. The Blue Devils have been ranked as high as No. 5 this season. … Forward Amile Jefferson, the lone returning starter off last year’s national championship team that went 35-4, 15-3 in the ACC, remains sidelined with a broken bone in his right foot suffered in mid-December … Notre Dame beat Duke last season in the ACC tournament semifinals. … Ingram was voted in preseason the top rookie in the ACC; Allen was a second team all-league selection. … Duke was picked in the preseason poll to finish third — one spot ahead of Notre Dame — with eight first-place votes. …. Blue Devils coach Mike Krzyzewski has won 959 games in 37 seasons at Duke. … Freshman guard Luke Kennard leads the ACC in free throw percentage at 93.2 (55-of-59). … Duke ranks second in the ACC in offense (86.6) and ninth in defense (69.3). Notre Dame is seventh in offense (78.2) and eighth in defense (68.3). … The Irish are ninth in the ACC in field goal percentage defense (42.3); the Blue Devils are 11th (42.9). ... Irish guard Demetrius Jackson leads the ACC in assists for conference games (7.25). … Irish power forward Zach Auguste needs three points to become the 57th player in school history to score 1,000 career points. …. Notre Dame has won three of its four meetings with Duke as ACC colleagues. … Duke leads the all-time series 20-5, including 7-0 at Cameron Indoor Stadium. … This is the only regular-season meeting … The Irish are 0-2 against ranked teams.

WORTH QUOTING: “It’s going to be a crazy atmosphere. It’s a unique place. I’m excited that our group gets to play in that atmosphere.”

-Notre Dame coach Mike Brey on Cameron Indoor Stadium, where he spent eight seasons as an assistant.