Assisting the Turnaround

Traevon Jackson has found ways other than consistent scoring to become an integral part of a Wisconsin team that has asserted itself as a Big Ten title contender with conference play kicking off tonight

EVANSTON, Ill. - Traevon Jackson is aware that his jump shot has not fallen through the net with great consistency during his first two-plus seasons at the University of Wisconsin.

Through the nonconference portion of the 2013-14 season and heading into tonight's Big Ten opener at Northwestern here at Welsh-Ryan Arena, Jackson is shooting 38.8 percent from the floor – the lowest percentage on the team for those who had taken at least five shots – and his 36.4 percent from 3-point range is the lowest among the starters.

Despite his difficulty making shots, Jackson has found other ways to make his presence felt on the floor for Wisconsin.

Over the same stretch of games, Jackson led the team with 59 assists, had a 2.46 assist-to-turnover ratio and made 12 steals. Just as important as his 10.7 points per game, Jackson was the guard of choice - on a team full of talented guards - to be the facilitator on the floor.

"You can always make a difference in the game offensively or defensively," said Jackson. "You just have to find ways to be relevant."

Jackson's relevance turned Wisconsin into one of the main storylines nationally in the first two months of the college basketball season. Ranked No. 20 in the Associated Press poll to start the season, Wisconsin ascended to fourth in the country based on its longest season-opening win streak in the modern era.

It's made Wisconsin fans forget a sometimes frustrating 2012-13 season, and has excited them for the possibilities as the Badgers enter a grueling February stretch, a month in which UW plays seven games against teams with the potential to be ranked in the top 25.

The Badgers didn't beat cupcakes on their record-breaking start, defeating five schools from "power" conferences and all three in-state schools; they also won two neutral site games in Cancun and three other games away from the Kohl Center. By the sixth poll of the season, Wisconsin was ranked in the top five for just the second time in school history.

And what made things even scarier was that the Badgers, according to Jackson, didn't start playing their best basketball until around Thanksgiving.

"Once you start communicating you can start playing off each other," said Jackson. "Our biggest thing was we weren't talking as much. Talking to each other and knowing where we are on the floor makes a big difference."

Jackson put that onus on his shoulders. In the first two games of the year, Jackson had eight assists and seven turnovers, five of which came against No. 11 Florida. Over the next nine games, Jackson turned the ball over just 12 times, and had at least seven assists in four different games.

"When you have everything else going in the right direction, in terms of distribution of the basketball, sharing with teammates, becoming a very good defender, that's when you start to imply some of those intangibles that he has," said associate head coach Greg Gard. "That makes you that much more as a better player."

Jackson learned the value of ball security when the young guards experienced the quick hook from Bo Ryan a year ago. That's how Jackson got the starting role in the first place. With Josh Gasser out for the season with a torn ACL, Wisconsin went to George Marshall for the first six games of the season before Jackson showed enough promise to take the role.

Jackson learned how important defense was on each possession, and how a player in the starting lineup has to come with a certain mindset and attitude for every single practice and possession. If he didn't, Ryan was right there with his hook.

"When you are competitive, you have high expectations, and he holds himself to a high standard," said Gard. "Obviously, with point guards in our program, you are held extremely accountable. We don't meet those standards and what we want, and it hurts the team. We're going to get better. He grew through that last year. I think those experiences, both good and bad, made him more prepared for this year.

"He's drawing on his experiences from last year, things he learned and how he got better, and applied those to what he needed to do in the offseason."

A first career start is supposed to be a memorable experience for a young player, but Jackson's big memory from a home game against Virginia last season was four words: got to get better.

Jackson said Wisconsin was "manhandled" by Virginia at home in a 60-54 loss. Ten days later, Jackson faced the hardest moment of his season, against Marquette, because of missed free throws.

The two games shares a common theme: Wisconsin didn't make enough plays down the stretch to earn a win. Jackson puts responsibility for that squarely on his own shoulders as the point guard.

"I think about the losses, and use that as an opportunity to get better," said Jackson. "I felt like the first half at Marquette was a bad game, but the best thing is you learn from it. I came out and had a better second half distributing and taking care of the ball."

Wisconsin's nonconference schedule this season threw a lot at Jackson and the Badgers' other guards. The Gators used a lot of traps and full-court pressures, while Saint Louis and West Virginia went into different pressures and zones to try to force mistakes.

It rarely worked, especially with Jackson having a 7-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio and grabbing a career-high 10 rebounds against the Mountaineers in the Cancun Challenge championship.

"I don't like giving teams that much credit," said Jackson, smiling, who also added Cancun Challenge All-Tournament Team honors after leading the Badgers to the title while averaging 11 points, eight rebounds and 4.5 assists in the two games.

"We like to push the ball; we like to get open shots and just play. In the past, we would wait until late in the shot clock and make a play. We have enough skill to make plays throughout the game. We have enough skill and talent to do that, so let's take advantage."

Jackson might be looking for his shot as he continues his second season as the starting guard, but he's already earned the reputation as the team's clutch shooter.

He shot only 37.2 percent from the field and 29.3 percent from 3-point range as a redshirt sophomore, but did connect on three game-winning or game-tying shots in the final minute last season to lead to wins, including a 25-foot 3-pointer as time expired to win at Penn State.

That magic continued this season, as Jackson atoned for his five turnovers by making the game-clinching shot in the 59-53 win over Florida, an elbow jumper with 9.8 seconds left. Because of plays like that, Ryan left him in the game for 39 minutes instead of instituting the quick hook.

"His willingness to take big shots, as you've seen, is second to none," said Gard.

Ryan and many of his players point to Wisconsin's trip to Canada in August as being a big springboard for the beginning of the season. Not only did the Badgers play five games in eight days, but they also utilized 10 extra practices to prepare for the trip, giving the team a jump start on its chemistry.

The trip not only helped Jackson with his confidence, but it also gave him a little bit of divine intervention. Jackson said during the nonconference portion of Wisconsin's schedule that he would find himself praying while he was playing. He found that a little prayer helped him stay in control of things.

"I just have so much peace now," he said. "Last year I wasn't at that point, and now I am."

That was evident in the two "revenge" games against Virginia and Marquette. Jackson didn't shoot a high percentage against Virginia, but helped the Badgers outrebound the Cavaliers, 40-34. Three days later, Jackson had a near-flawless 7-to-0 assist-to-turnover ratio against in-state rival Marquette.

"Not to take anything away from last year's team, but it's a different makeup," Jackson said. "Obviously we're smaller on the front line, but I think we have more chemistry."

The son of Jim Jackson, a two-time All-American and two-time Big Ten Player of the Year at Ohio State, Jackson has never tried to compare himself or live up to the large shadow his father cast. For Jackson, the next season-and-a-half is all about getting better and being the distributor for Wisconsin's exciting offense.

"It's all about what you're going to do next," said Gard. "It's about constantly progressing and getting better. The biggest [thing] for him is continuing to be a leader and pushing guys in a positive way. We thought as he matured and developed, (his leadership qualities) would be something that would really help us."


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