CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – On Feb. 1, while Louisville was ending North Carolina’s 12-game winning streak at the KFC Yum! Center, Justin Jackson appeared to break free from the shooting slump that had mired his second ACC season.
The sophomore wing led UNC with 16 points on 6-of-9 shooting in the loss. That output was a marked improvement from his first eight games of the ACC conference slate. Jackson averaged 9.0 points per game on 38.1 percent shooting during that stretch. His struggles were overshadowed in part due to UNC’s 8-0 streak to open league play.
Roy Williams, however, refused to be swayed by one good game in a landslide of poor outings, telling reporters last week he’s not one to “get carried away over one game, bad or good.”
Sure enough, Jackson slipped back into his funk at Notre Dame, scoring five points on 1-of-7 shooting.
Tuesday night in Boston was different. It wasn’t that Jackson’s shots fell – he scored a team-high 20 points on 9-of-11 shooting – it was how he found those shots that set that outing apart. The lanky 6-foot-8 wing was assertive with the ball in his hands, attacking the rim from various angles for layups or his soft driving floater.
Williams agreed with that assessment on Friday, saying, “I’ve told him I want him to be aggressive. I really do want him to be aggressive.”
The 13th-year UNC head coach said he’s had discussions with Jackson about his play of late, praising his defensive improvement while pushing for increased production on the backboards. However, Tuesday’s performance may have had more to do with a certain coaching decision.
“The biggest thing we did different is we didn’t start him,” Williams said. “We’ve had some good conversations, but … that’s giving coaching too much credit. He’s really fighting through some stuff and I think that’s what’s happened.”
Scratching beneath the surface of that vague “stuff” reference is difficult, although Jackson provided his perspective on his turnaround in Boston after the game.
“Just forgetting about everything else,” he said. “What the media says, what fans say, what even my own family says. Whatever it has to be. Just forgetting about that and going out and playing how I know how to play. That’s all it is.”
Jackson told reporters he’s not sure what exactly is behind his midseason struggles, and he seemed honest in his response. As for his benching, the reason behind the decision was cause for greater concern than the act itself.
“It was disappointing, but it was disappointing because I knew I hadn’t played how I was supposed to play,” Jackson said. “… I haven’t played like I’ve wanted to at all these past couple of games except for Louisville. So for me, I just tried to forget about all of that in the past and go out there and play.”
UNC’s preseason Final Four expectations were based in part on Jackson continuing his strong play from the end of 2014-15, a stretch in which he reached double figures in 11 of his final 12 games and shot 52.1 percent from the floor and 44.7 percent from long range. In 11 ACC games this season, Jackson has reached double figures five times and is shooting 43.2 percent from the floor and 16 percent from 3-point territory.
The pair of 3-pointers Jackson made at Boston College equaled the number of treys he had made in his previous 12 games.