Dom Amore: Coming through a rough stretch, Andre Jackson Jr. was ‘captain courageous’ for UConn men vs. Seton Hall
One could watch basketball for a long time and not see another player quite like Andre Jackson Jr.
A world-class athlete with a work ethic to match, he has curious struggles with the game he has played all his life, struggles to score, struggles to make the best decisions. All who coach or play with him describe him as the ultimate team-first guy, a captain in the truest sense, yet he has often been goaded into taking ill-advised shots when the opposition sniffs vulnerability.
For much of his nearly three seasons at UConn, there has been justifiable focus on all the ways in which he can impact a game without scoring a basket or even taking a shot. Yet as the Huskies’ season headed off on the wrong path in January, there has been more focus on the things Jackson doesn’t do well than the rest of his dynamic game.
Maybe things began to change on Saturday, when Jackson scored a season-high 15 points, going 5-for-10 from the floor in the Huskies’ important 64-55 win over Seton Hall at sold-out Gampel Pavilion.
“He’s shown incredible courage, incredible strength,” coach Dan Hurley said. “To still just come in and be the most competitive guy, the best leader, the best communicator. It’s bothered him. You won’t find many people you come across in life that have more of a competitive spirit, that care more about the team, that have more pride in their performance.”
What to do about Jackson became a major topic as the Huskies, after their 14-0 start, lost seven of 12 Big East games. Take him out and they’d lose all the important things he does. Leave him in and it could become four-against-five on offense. If he passed up wide-open looks, a teammate would have to take contested shots.
Starting on Dec. 28, when he went 3-for-11 in a win over Villanova, teams have been “guarding” Jackson in name only, the cry “let him shoot” becoming his Kryptonite. His instinct was to take them up on it, but he went 1-for-7 at Providence, 3-for-12 against Xavier, 3-for-11 at Creighton, all losses. Across a 13-game stretch he was 30-for-92, and this began to overshadow the rebounding, the defense, the passing skills and the flash plays.
Toughest time of his basketball career?
“Nah, I’ve had stretches where I couldn’t score a point or do anything,” Jackson said. “It was one of the lower parts of this season, but I’ve had lower parts. Really it’s just staying persistent through it all. I turned to my teammates and I turn to my coaching staff, they’ve always got my back. Teammates are always telling me to shoot the ball, coaches were reiterating the same thing. They also helped me out when I’m not making shots, playing off me, letting me set screens and hitting me off the roll.”
After the loss at Creighton last Saturday Jackson and his support system regrouped. He met with coaches at the beginning of the week and they gave him a plan.
“I really just stuck with that,” Jackson said. “Found my spots on the court that they told me to get to.”
Jackson took four threes against Seton Hall and missed them all, but Hurley thought three of them were the right decisions. Inside the arc Jackson was 5-for-6, with four dunks and a layup, and went 5-for-7 from the line, reaching double figures for the first time since New Year’s Eve.
“I think he found something today, about how he needs to operate when people were playing him a little bit soft,” Hurley said. “And as he continues to excel and build off what he did today, they’re going to have to get closer to him and that’s going to open him back up in the ball-screen game where he is a very dynamic player.”
The rest of Jackson’s game was there, including 10 rebounds, three assists. He might have threatened a triple double, but teammates weren’t always ready for those hard, nifty passes. His impact was felt midway through the second half when he checked back in, UConn leading 44-40. Four points, three rebounds, a steal and block as the Huskies stretched that led out to 56-40 over a four-minute stretch.
“Andre is the ultimate leader,” Hassan Diarra said. “We go as he goes. He’s vocal each and every day, you see the work he puts in each and every day, so it’s no surprise to us that he’s starting to play well, but we’ve got his back no matter what.”
Good day for Jackson, and good day for the Huskies, who avenged a terrible loss at Seton Hall earlier in the season and, as Hurley said, showed they could win a “toughness” game. Next, they have Providence at Gampel on Wednesday, another revenge match against another team that will require them to grind and make smart decisions under pressure.
At this place and time in UConn history, a 20th win is not cause for celebration, but the Huskies are 20-7, eighth in the NCAA NetRankings, have won four of five and have four more games to rediscover their best basketball in time for the postseason.
They’ll need Andre Jackson to do Andre Jackson things, and just a dash of scoring needs to be one of those things.
“I’ll tell you this,” said Jordan Hawkins, who scored 20 points. “‘Dre is very strong mentally. We have a great coaching staff that coaches him and he has teammates that have his back. So he has nothing to worry about.”
Dom Amore can be reached at email@example.com