Noie: Former Notre Dame guard Tory Jackson could solve Syracuse zone

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

Fear never was a factor for former Notre Dame point guard Tory Jackson.

Not growing up in Saginaw, Mich., a tough town where life can be hard and humbling. Not being raised in a family of 13 siblings, including nine brothers, where everything from attention to the next meal sometimes was a fight. And certainly not on the basketball court, a place Jackson long considered his sanctuary.

So when Jackson, then a college freshman, stepped into the Carrier Dome on Jan. 30, 2007 — his 19th birthday — and was required to solve the trademark 2/3 zone defense of Syracuse for the first time, he approached it the only way he knew. Respect it. Embrace it. Attack it.

“You just gotta go out there and react,” said the 30-year-old Jackson, in his second season as the boys’ basketball coach at John Glenn High School in Bay City, Mich. “Whenever I see a zone, I’m just a playmaker. I could do a lot.

“If you’re sitting back in the zone and not pressuring me, I’m out there having fun, picking it apart.”

Jackson stripped it clean that night in Central New York. In 35 minutes, he scored 19 points with seven assists, three rebounds and three steals to only three turnovers as he led the Irish to a 103-91 victory. At the time, it was the most points ever scored by an opponent in Carrier Dome history.

“Man, that was a crazy game,” Jackson said.

Three years later as a seasoned senior, Jackson was just as smooth against the zone. Still the school leader for games played (136), he set his career high for assists — 15 — in a loss to the Orange. Jackson loved playing against zones. He often made it look so easy. In many ways, it was. He’d rarely seen one in high school. He really never saw one on the AAU circuit where it’s all ball screens and isolations. Practice leading into ‘Cuse games never came close to simulating how long and how athletic and how quickly the Orange defenders could close out. None of that mattered. Jackson just played, something too few point guards — young point guards — do when they see it for the first time.

“Sometimes you just gotta go out there and do what you have to do,” Jackson said. “If you overthink it, you can get killed in that zone, man. It will swallow you alive.”

Notre Dame (10-4; 0-1 ACC) and freshman guard Prentiss Hubb get a crack at the zone Saturday in the Irish conference home opener (12 p.m., WMYS). Hubb is the first Irish point guard since Jackson to start against Syracuse as a freshman. That means he could become the first Irish freshman point guard since Jackson to start and beat the Orange. Eric Atkins didn’t do it. Jerian Grant didn’t do it. Neither did Demetrius Jackson and Matt Farrell.

Hubb’s next up. He knows he has to handle this zone better than he did the last. In late December against Binghamton, which plays more of a matchup than Syracuse, Hubb had a hard time getting anything going. Even as far back as preseason practices, Hubb’s had trouble with zones. They take him out of his game, push him away from his comfort zone.

Hubb had a career-high seven assists in 33 minutes against Binghamton, but he also had four turnovers and missed all six of his shots from the floor. He went scoreless for the only time this season.

“Young guards, their tendency is to play with the ball over their head instead of down in triple-threat position,” said Irish coach Mike Brey. “He’s got to attack. He’s got to get in the lane and try and make some plays for us. If he turns it over a little bit, he turns it over a little bit.”

Playing against the Orange zone is a rite of passage for young ACC guards. It may come early in the conference schedule, or late. It may be on the road or at home. One way or another, you’re going to have to do it and do it well to be a really good guard in a really good league.

Time for Hubb to decode the zone.

“We just gotta move the ball and get into the middle,” he said. “The hardest part is not shooting too many 3s and trying to get into the paint more. It should be a really big challenge for me.”

In myriad ways. Hubb has to crack the zone code and also has to make some more shots. He continues to struggle with his shot, which looks broken. The numbers charted during Notre Dame’s 50-plus practices say that Hubb’s a way better shooter from 3 (nearly 40 percent) than what he’s shown. The numbers from his first 14 games (28.6 percent from the field, 20.7 percent from 3) scream otherwise.

Hubb’s worked more on his shot the last couple days. He’s talked with those close to him about staying confident. And he believes that the next shot he takes — the first one Saturday — is going in.

“I’m not really worried about that too much,” he said. “It’s going to come to me as long as I’m doing other things on the court to help my team win. I’m fine.”

Watching from a distance, Jackson agrees. Hubb’s not making anywhere near the amount of shots he needs to make, but he’s not letting it affect other areas. The 6-foot-3 Hubb ranks second on the squad in assists (46) and minutes (30.9). He’s third in steals (12). He’s sixth in the ACC for assist/turnover ratio (2.19). He’s one of only two freshmen (Duke’s Tre Jones), ranked in the Top 10 for assist/turnover.

Hubb plays with an energy that Brey believes is contagious. All of that keeps him on the court. The jumper? That will come. Eventually. Hopefully.

Jackson’s advice to Hubb is to keep playing your game. Be confident. Be aggressive. Don’t. Be. Afraid. Especially Saturday.

“You’ve got to deal with that adversity,” Jackson said. “You can’t shy away from it; knock it out and get over it. Keep playing and keep plugging.

“My man’s going to be really good. He’s going to be a great guard.”

Takes one to see one.

WHO: Notre Dame (10-4; 0-1 ACC) vs. Syracuse (9-4; 0-0).

WHERE: Purcell Pavilion (9,149).

WHEN: Saturday at noon.

TICKETS: Available.

TV: WMYS.

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

MEN’S BASKETBALL

NOTING: Atlantic Coast Conference player of the week Tyus Battle scored 21 points with six steals to lead Syracuse to an 81-48 victory Dec. 29 at home against Saint Bonaventure. The Orange have been idle since. … Syracuse returns all five starters for the first time since 2000 to a team that finished 23-14, 8-10 and tied for 10th in the ACC. … Ranked as high as No. 15 in the Associated Press poll this season, Syracuse was picked to finish fourth with one first-place vote in the ACC. … Syracuse leads the all-time series 28-21, including 12-10 at Notre Dame. The Irish have won the last two after losing four in a row and seven of eight. … Coach Jim Boeheim is in his 43rd season at his alma mater. His son, Buddy, is a freshman guard with the Orange. … Coming off Tuesday’s 81-66 loss at No. 10 Virginia Tech, Notre Dame looks to avoid starting 0-2 in the ACC for the first time in history and the first time in league play since 2005-06 when it lost its first three and seven of the first eight in the Big East to finish 6-10.

QUOTING: “Shoot, I’m super impressed with those guys. You’ve got guys who are going to be really good in a couple years. They’re going to turn into pros.”

• Former Notre Dame guard Tory Jackson on the current Irish freshman class.