He's making a strong push for the conference's All-Freshmen team. Jackson continues to improve in almost every statistical category. He's second in league contests in assists and continues to cut down on his turnovers. As a point guard, the ball is going to be in his hands late in games. Jackson is starting to punish teams for putting him at the free throw line. After shooting 60 percent from the free throw line before the Big East schedule started, Jackson is up to 67 percent in conference action. The team is feeding off of his inspiring play.
"I think he plays with a lot of passion and energy," head coach Mike Brey said at his Thursday press conference. "It's contagious to his teammates. Certainly, he defends well. We haven't had a young man like that defend the ball and he's active. We've used the term energy guy and he's certainly that. Our guys kid of thrive off of that."
It brings up an interesting question: what happens with Kyle McAlarney next year? The sophomore was the starting point guard this season before being dismissed from the university for the spring semester because of a drug possession arrest in late December. McAlarney is expected to re-enroll at Notre Dame next fall and be part of the team once again.
Brey might be smiling about the possibility of the two talented guards in the same backcourt next year. McAlarney is the better three-point shooter and could fill the void left by senior Colin Falls at the two-guard spot. He nailed 46 percent of his shots from behind the arc before the suspension. Brey said he talked to Kyle a few days ago and McAlarney was excited about the possibility of the backcourt pairing. Jackson, because of his quickness and improving decision-making with the basketball, more than likely would handle the point guard duties. Brey made it known that these two will play heavy minutes together next season.
"They'll play together and we won't miss a beat," Brey said. "They'll spell each other a bit but they'll play together. The second half of the Maryland game is an example of how they can play together for a long period. When we played those two small guys together for those two years, Chris (Thomas) and Chris (Quinn), we played that A-schedule and we were pretty good. We were 18-14 and 7-9 on the road in the Big East.
"This combination can be better because of how Tory defends. If you have small guys, you worry about height. One of those guys can really guard and can change the game on the defensive end and make steals."
***The success of Notre Dame this season has made it possible to speculate on all-conference awards. Jackson is nudging his way onto the All-Freshman team, along with big man Luke Harangody. Falls and Carter will get serious looks for first-team All-Big East honors. The head coach might get the biggest award.
Picked to finish 11th out of 16 teams in the Big East, Brey will get consideration for conference Coach of the Year. He's had to deal with his starting point guard getting thrown out of school for the semester right before league play started. Brey has had to mold a young team around Falls and Russell Carter, the two contributing seniors on the team. All in all, the 22-6 record after 28 games is an achievement only diehard Notre Dame fans could have imagined.
The main competition for the award is Louisville's Rick Pitino. The Irish beat the Cardinals in the Big East opener but Louisville is a win away at home on Saturday over Seton Hall in securing the third spot for the league tournament in New York City. Pitino also has had to deal with a young group of players and the week in which they beat both Pittsburgh and Marquette on the road clinched their NCAA Tournament ticket. When questioned on Thursday about the possibility of winning Coach of the Year, Brey redirected the praise away from himself.
"Our program has been about our guys.," Brey said. "Anytime you're mentioned, you think about two things. You think about your coaching staff. They've done a nice job and I feel good about the job they've done this year. Also, if you look at the guys who've won that award, they've had great captains. They've had great leadership. We have that with our team. The biggest excitement I'll get, if we're fortunate enough to get an NCAA Tournament bid, is to see Carter and Falls' face on Selection Sunday."