MINNEAPOLIS – When Tom Izzo talks about his team’s raw talent, when opposing coaches mention Michigan State’s high ceiling, they’re talking about one thing, or person — Jaren Jackson Jr.
He’s the raw talent with the most room to blossom. He’s the ceiling that’s so dang high.
He’s what makes MSU different from most of the rest of college basketball, from anything MSU has ever been before.
And while that begins with being statistically the best rim protector in the country, his evolving offensive game is what makes the Spartans dangerous beyond what we’ve seen yet. Or at least what we’d seen before Tuesday night’s 87-57 win at Minnesota.
Jackson dazzled “at three levels,” as Izzo put it — “(from) 3(-point land), the post a couple times, (and) we got it to him in the midrange (area) a couple times where he made some moves and drove and spun.”
Jackson’s stat line was ridiculous: 27 points, 10-for-14 shooting, 5 of 8 from beyond the arc, six rebounds, three assists, three blocked shots. And, for the first time since his sixth birthday, no fouls.
Let’s be clear, the matchup helped tremendously. The Gophers are depleted, demoralized and short. Jackson knew that. It helped him stay out of foul trouble, he said. But he made Minnesota look and feel every ounce of its shortcomings.
“He puts a lot of stress on the defense,” Minnesota power forward Jordan Murphy said. “Being able to knock down shots like that, then also when he drives left, he’s just going to finish over you. It definitely puts a lot of stress on the defense and definitely a matchup nightmare for regular 4s (power forwards) in the league.”
“You could tell how frustrated they were,” MSU point guard Cassius Winston said. “(Jackson) would make a good pass or if they didn’t double(-team), he would dunk the ball. It’s hard on a team just to figure out how to play a person who can shoot outside and score the inside.”
It’s more than that, though. It’s the hoops acumen. It’s how he plays off of Winston.
“I’ve played with him 20-some games,” Jackson said. “It kind of just happened naturally. Whoever is shooting well at the time, which honestly was both of us (Tuesday), we try to get that person the ball in the right spots.”
What is different now than a month ago (other than a beleaguered foe)?
“Probably patience, knowing the ball is going to find me at different times — and me not forcing shots.”
On Tuesday night, the ball found Jackson all the time. And he began trusting that it would, for good reason. There were little plays that made a difference. For example, Kenny Goins had an open 3, but swung it over to Jackson, who took the shot instead for a 39-20 lead. That might seem like an obvious play, but Goins had the better look.
Michigan State basketball coach Tom Izzo’s postgame press conference after the Spartans beat Minnesota, 87-57, on Tuesday, February 13, 2018.
Chris Solari/Detroit Free Press
Izzo, now trusting what he’s seeing out of Winston and Miles Bridges, sees Jackson and Joshua Langford as the two players whose games can find another level consistently between now and March.
“If we’re going to take another step to get this team to one more level, which it has to get to another level, I think Jaren and Josh are very important,” he said.
Izzo continued to challenge Jackson Tuesday even during the best game of his short career at MSU.
“He’s not going to let me settle, even if I’m having a great half,” Jackson said. “Because, if I get complacent, that half can turn into something really ugly, really quickly.”
“He’s got to become even a better passer,” Izzo said, “because he’s so big he can look in. He missed Nick (Ward) a couple times. I thought he did a pretty good job stepping up on ball screens, but we talked late, a couple times he didn’t. When he got tired, some of that game went down. But this was definitely his best game as far as on both ends of the court.”
Jackson was most effective Tuesday during the 11 minutes he played center. He can’t do that against everyone — Purdue’s Isaac Haas, for example, would pummel him — but, against those he can, it presents new lineup possibilities for Izzo and new headaches for opponents. Winning the NCAA tournament is all about winning matchups six times in a row. Jackson playing the 5 is one more matchup likely to go in MSU’s favor.
“He gives us a high ceiling, especially when we can play him at the 5,” MSU associate head coach Dwayne Stephens said Tuesday night. “There are not a lot of 5s that can guard a pick-and-pop 4-man. And that’s what happen tonight, we put him at the 5 some, it allowed us to be a little more versatile. That’s how he was able to get some of those open looks.”
It’s important to keep in mind that, just three days earlier in MSU’s most important game of the year, Jackson tallied two points, five rebounds and one blocked shot in 13 foul-plagued minutes against Purdue.
Foul trouble, for the rest of the season, threatens his impact. He’s had four or five fouls in 15 of MSU’s 28 games this season. He’s got long arms, and he likes to use them.
The Spartans need him on the floor — and causing stress for others — against the opponents who can actually challenge them. That probably wasn’t going to be Minnesota on Tuesday night with or without him. Still, any upset-minded team early in the NCAA tournament will find their odds longer facing MSU with Jackson. Think of Middle Tennessee State two years ago and their forwards hitting all those outside shots. That doesn’t happen against Jackson’s length. If anything, it’s more likely to happen to them.
“This is one of the games you haven’t seen out of him before,” Winston said, of Jackson. “If he plays like that, this team takes another whole step forward.”
Contact Graham Couch at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @Graham_Couch.