Analysis: Now has to be time for Notre Dame's Demetrius Jackson

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

NEW YORK — Opening a window into his world is not something done easily or often by Notre Dame junior captain Demetrius Jackson.

When it comes to letting others see his basketball soul, Jackson’s a guarded guard.

But if No. 6 seed Notre Dame (21-11) is to advance into the NCAA Tournament’s second round with a win over No. 11 Michigan (23-12) late Friday night (9:40 p.m., CBS) at Barclays Center in Brooklyn, Jackson must lay all his tools and talents out there for all to see.

This potential for the Irish to do something special this month may depend on it.

When Jackson is really good, Notre Dame wins at Cameron Indoor Stadium for the first time in school history. It shrugs off a 15-point deficit at home to beat then-No. 2 North Carolina. It roars back from another deficit the following week against Louisville, thanks to his career-high 27 points.

When Jackson gets going, the Irish play with more swagger. They're confident. They flow. They attack. They look like a team capable of beating anyone.

Even during those magical moments the past few months, Jackson often made it a point to remain humble and hungry. He would hit all the correct talking points in media meetings. It always was about getting better every day, taking it the proverbial one day at a time, about trusting his teammates and being better together.

Seldom is it about him. Let someone else stand in the spotlight.

It’s just not how he’s wired. He’s a point guard/playmaker/pleaser. He’s someone who wants to make sure everyone is going and getting theirs before he looks to go and get his. But he’s also ridiculously talented. When that talent surfaces, he often downplays any hint of dominance.

Then there are times, like the two-minute snapshot in the regular-season finale against North Carolina State, when he’s just scary good. He knows it. He’s not shy about it.

Struggling to make a shot — he missed his first six — and having fallen into foul trouble chasing Wolfpack guard and fellow Class of 2013 McDonald’s All-American Anthony “Cat” Barber, Jackson eventually fell into one of those zones that the elite of the elite often explore.

He erupted for 10 points in a two-minute burst. He twice drove it hard to the hoop and finished with force. He connected on a 3-pointer. And when he drained another pull-up 3 in transition, Jackson stopped for a moment at the free throw line and struck a pose as if to say, "I’ve got this."

Afterward, Jackson’s words seemed to hint that he missed that version of himself. And his game. There have been few times this season when he’s felt like way. Too many times when the game has felt less like joy and more like a job.

A really tough job.

“You get into a flow, and you just get into this feeling and you’re having fun,” he said after the regular-season finale. “You’re not thinking about it and really rolling. I had that a lot last year. I want to get that back to where I have stretches where I have that flow.”

It was easy to go with that flow a year ago. With senior Pat Connaughton handling captain’s duties on the court and in the locker room and fellow senior Jerian Grant mastering his role as the “ultimate creator,” Jackson could pick his spots when to shine. His game flourished and highlight-reel plays became easy.

Like the drive that started somewhere out beyond the 3-point line and a two-hand slam early against Providence. Or when he turned the corner with fire in his eyes and springs in his legs before finishing a one-hand windmill dunk over Purdue’s 7-foot-2 center Isaac Haas.

Or his behind-the-back dribble, spin move and dish to teammate Zach Auguste in last year’s NCAA Tournament opener against Northeastern that eventually became a featured clip on “One Shining Moment.”

He was cutting it loose.

Those moments this year have been few. There was the burst against North Carolina State ... the Louisville game ... and ... and ...

“My role’s a little different than it was last year,” Jackson said Thursday. “But I think I can still bring that role back, give us a spark when we need a spark of energy.

“I want to get back to that.”

In late-January, Jackson’s game was on track for certain first team All-Atlantic Coast Conference recognition. He seemed poised to chase league Player of the Year.

But a balky right hamstring cost him nearly all of two games. When the Irish lost three of four toward the end of the year, Jackson was relegated to second-team, all-league status.

Irish coach Mike Brey has talked often as the year has unfolded about the respect he has for Jackson. It’s not easy being the hometown guy and the pressures that come with it.

But those in his hometown who know him and know big-time basketball seldom expected anything other-worldly from Jackson. If anything, the pressure’s been for him to show the savvy and the skills that made him an elite recruit.

Time is running short on Jackson’s collegiate career. The NBA will come calling hard very soon. Jackson is projected a likely first-round pick, maybe even a lottery selection.

Is he ready? That’s a question for another day. For now, all that matters is that come a little after half past 9 on Friday night, he’s ready to let everyone experience his game. His total game. He’s ready to show it off.

“That’s what I want to do,” Jackson said.

tnoie@ndinsider.com

(574) 235-6153

Twitter: @tnoieNDI

Notre Dame has a chance to enjoy an extended NCAA Tournament stay if guard Demetrius Jackson taps into his toolbox of talent.Tribune Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN

NCAA Tournament

First round

WHO: No. 6 seed Notre Dame (21-11) vs. No. 11 Michigan (23-12).

WHERE: Barclays Center (17,732); Brooklyn, N.Y.

WHEN: Friday at 9:40 p.m. (EDT)

TV: CBS.

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: Guard Zak Irvin hit a fade 3-pointer from the top of the key with 53 seconds left to give Michigan a lead it didn't relinquished in a 67-62 victory Wednesday over fellow No. 11 seed Tulsa in an NCAA Tournament play-in game in Dayton, Ohio. The Wolverines trailed 60-59 before Irvin’s basket. Irvin and fellow guard Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman each scored 16 points to lead the Wolverines. Guard Duncan Robinson added his first career double-double of 13 points and 11 rebounds. Michigan shot 6-of-25 (24 percent) from 3. The game featured nine ties and 16 lead changes. … Michigan has won three of its last four. … The Wolverines have won at least four games in a row three different times this year, including a season-best six-game win streak. … Michigan ranks sixth in the Big Ten for both scoring offense (74.3 ppg.) and scoring defense (67.5). … The Wolverines have made a school-record 332 3-pointers this season. … In his ninth year as Michigan coach, John Beilein ranks third for most wins in school history (189) behind Johnny Orr (209) and Bill Frieder (191). … Michigan leads the all-time series 15-7, including 4-1 at neutral sites. … This is the first meeting between the schools since an 89-87 Michigan win in double overtime on March 20, 2006 in the postseason National Invitation Tournament. … Michigan and Notre Dame meet for the third time in the NCAA Tournament. The Wolverines won the previous two — 77-68 in Tuscaloosa, Ala., on March 14, 1974 and 80-76 on March 18, 1976 in Louisville, Ky. … Friday’s winner advances to Sunday’s second round to face the winner of No. 3 seed West Virginia and No. 14 Stephen F. Austin.

WORTH QUOTING: “I always thought we were a team that would evolve throughout the season. I kind of reminded our guys that, so that we didn’t jump off any buildings after tough losses or celebrate too much after wins.”

— Notre Dame coach Mike Brey.