Traevon Jackson's journey ends at Final Four for Wisconsin
MADISON, Wis. (AP) Traevon Jackson sat on the scorer's table in his practice jersey, watching Wisconsin teammates run up and down the floor.
Ideally, the point guard didn't want to spend one of his final practices at home as a spectator. This is coach Bo Ryan's senior leader, after all, someone so trusted by teammates that he took the last shot in last season's one-point loss in the Final Four to Kentucky.
But after missing more than two months with a broken right foot, the senior is simply grateful to get one more chance to return to the NCAA Tournament's brightest stage. The Badgers play the Wildcats in a rematch in the national semifinals on Saturday night.
''All this stuff that happened, to be able to go to back-to-back Final Fours - I prayed for this consistently over and over again,'' Jackson said in a phone interview. The team said Jackson sat out practice Tuesday just for precautionary rest.
Faith, Jackson said, is his foundation. It is what helped him persevere through the pain and rehab process.
A history of coming through in the clutch is what drew the respect of teammates. The privilege of taking shots in tight games must be earned in practice.
''You find out through those situations at least who the players are trusting to be in that position,'' Ryan said. ''Then you strongly encourage (and think) `OK, this is what happened eight times, three times this happened,' and you play percentages. That's what I do.''
Jackson has hit four game-tying or winning jumpers in his career. At last year's Final Four, Jackson hit two foul shots with 16 seconds left to give Wisconsin a 73-71 lead before Aaron Harrison hit a the game-winning 3 with 6 seconds left. Jackson missed that last shot at the buzzer.
This season, the Badgers were cruising at 15-1 when Jackson got hurt. Already without star center Frank Kaminsky because of a concussion, Wisconsin lost at Rutgers 67-62 that day after Jackson departed following 26 minutes with the foot injury. He was playing well at the time, averaging 9.4 points.
The Badgers lost depth when sophomore Bronson Koenig moved into the starting lineup. But the team adjusted and kept rolling.
Wisconsin is 20-1 since Jackson's injury, with the only loss coming at Maryland. Koenig has turned into one of the team's top outside shooting threats while growing more confident as a leader. Kaminsky and guard Josh Gasser can also handle the ball in close games.
Jackson had to focus on rehab. He made it a point to mentor Koenig, who teammates said already had the physical skills.
''Trae has been supportive throughout this whole process, getting hurt. He's a great teammate and he's always been there for Bronson and for us ... being a coach on the sidelines,'' forward Sam Dekker said Tuesday.
Jackson said he has watched Koenig become more assertive.
''He wants to do things, wants to be the guy,'' Jackson said. ''That's big for being in a point guard situation.''
But it hasn't necessarily been a smooth adjustment to come off the bench. He has been the starter since early in his sophomore year. He has overcome bouts of inconsistency in his career that had fans at times using social media to questioning his decision-making.
Jackson is focusing on the positives.
''It's different. It's a role that changed,'' Jackson said about being a reserve. ''That's what has allowed me to really just focus and get into adverse situations and adapt. Adapt for anything and get ready for any situation.''
Jackson was understandably anxious to return. At one point in late February, Jackson thought he would be ready to return for Wisconsin's final regular season home game on March 1 against Michigan State.
But he wasn't medically cleared to return practice until the week leading up to the opening weekend of the NCAAs. Jackson finally played his first game in the 79-72 win over North Carolina last week in the Sweet 16.
He played nine minutes and finished with four points. But he'll always remember his first shot, a 3 from the corner that gave Wisconsin a lift off the bench.
''I was like, `Thank you Lord!''' Jackson recounted. ''What a way to come into this game like that.''
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