C.J. Jackson shows OSU that leadership — and basketball — are in good hands vs. Cincinnati

CINCINNATI — C.J. Jackson had the basketball in his hands, exactly where Ohio State coach Chris Holtmann would want it. Still, the Buckeyes’ circumstance was less than ideal. Three seconds remained on the shot clock, and they were lapsing fast.

Oops, now two seconds.

Jackson stands 6-1. Cincinnati Bearcats forward Tre Scott, defending him at the time, is 6-8. What made the situation work for the Buckeyes, though, was that Jackson was aware of his time constraints, and Scott was not. With Scott preoccupied with the possibility Jackson might attempt a drive toward the rim, Jackson took a half-step back, fired a 3-pointer with a little extra arc beneath it and watched it snap through the net for what might have been the decisive basket in Ohio State’s 64-56 victory.

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For Holtmann, recruiting Jackson remains one of the best decisions his predecessors made.

“He’s made a few of those, honestly. He gets a little bit too happy with it at times. I told him to drive the ball when he’s got some of those bigger guys on him,” Holtmann told Sporting News after the game. “I’ve seen him do it a number of times. He’s got good range, he’s got soft touch, and he’s got the courage to take those shots.”

The occasion of the grand re-opening of Cincinnati’s homecourt, an $87 million project to reconfigure an arena that had been substandard for nearly two decades, did not produce the most beautiful basketball from the Bearcats or their honored guests.

It did provide an opportunity, though, to marvel at the unlikely ascent of Jackson to hero of this game and cornerstone of the current Buckeyes squad. Although OSU center Kaleb Wesson was the best player on the floor, Jackson’s command of the game and timely production was the singular difference between the teams. Cincinnati’s Justin Jenifer and Cane Broome were a combined 3-of-18 from the floor. Jackson scored 13 points and delivered in every big moment for OSU.

“He’s a really good college player,” Cincinnati coach Mick Cronin told SN. “He makes shots.”

Jackson is not a dazzling creator — or perhaps any kind of creator. He passed for only one assist in this game and averaged just 3.9 last season. You will not find Jackson on the 20-player watch list for the Bob Cousy Award, presented to the nation’s top point guard, but you will not find a point guard who has meant more to his program the past two seasons.

He was a no-star prospect in high school, though he helped win a North Carolina state championship for Charlotte’s Olympic High over future Kansas All-American Devonte’ Graham. Jackson prepped for a year at Montverde Academy and committed to George Mason, but a coaching change there led him to reconsider and enroll in junior college at Eastern Florida State.

There, he began a successful conversion to point guard and soon was discovered by major programs like UConn, Missouri and Ohio State, then coached by Thad Matta.

Jackson was a solid 20-minute backup in his first season with the Buckeyes. When Matta was let go nearly three months after the season ended, Holtmann took over and eventually discovered he not only had one of the Big Ten’s toughest players in Jae’Sean Tate and pro-level scorer in Keita Bates-Diop, he also a point guard ready to start, lead and win.

Jackson averaged 12.6 points and made 38 percent of his 3-point attempts in 2017-18. The Buckeyes finished 25-9 and missed a Big Ten regular-season championship by a single game. It would have been two games if not for Jackson’s buzzer-beating basket in double-overtime at Indiana.

Tate and Bates-Diop ended their careers in the 2018 NCAA Tournament. There wasn’t a whole lot left over, but Jackson at least provides the assurance everything will move in the proper direction.

”He’s a great kid. He really is. And he wants to do well. You kind of begin there with him,” Holtmann said. “I think there will be times he’s going to have difficult moments this season, because he’s got a bigger load than he’s ever experienced. He’s going to need to allow his teammates to help him if he’s going to have the kind of senior year that he wants.”

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On a night when Cincinnati’s retooling squad made just four of its first 29 shots from the field, it wouldn’t seem there’d be much need for the Buckeyes to conjure big baskets to leave the Bearcats’ newly refurbished arena with a victory.

But UC eventually made enough baskets in the second half to engage a crowd eager for a successful grand opening. Jackson’s basket over Scott with 6:54 left took an 11-point lead to 14 and killed the best hope for a serious comeback.

There still was a desperate comeback, though, and Jackson took care of that, too. Out of a timeout, after Jarron Cumberland’s 3-pointer for Cincinnati cut the OSU lead to 60-56 with 59 seconds left, the Buckeyes consumed nearly the entire shot clock before Jackson sneaked through the defense for a layup that made it a 6-point game.

“Coach just told me the previous possession I took a bad one, and just to drive it,” Jackson said. “It’s just next play; you’ve got to move onto the next play. If you worry about the previous play, it’s going to hold you back to make the next play when it’s your time to step up. When those moments come, they’ve prepared me well. I’ve been working all summer for these type of moments in these type of games.”

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