Kansas's Josh Jackson turning into complicated March star as tourney run continues

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Monday March 20th, 2017

TULSA, Okla. — Kansas is good. This is a conclusion drawn not only by having two functioning eyes and coming across a Jayhawks game at most points of this season, but also by seeing what transpired at the BOK Center this weekend.

A 90–70 win over No. 9 seed Michigan State in the NCAA tournament’s second round was highly impressive, mostly because the Spartans were a confident team on the rise that No. 1 seed Kansas shut down with an emphatic effort down the stretch. Here are three more thoughts on the meeting between the college basketball powerhouses on Sunday:

1. Josh Jackson is a burgeoning, complicated March star. Let’s talk in strictly basketball terms first: After a 17-point, seven-rebound tourney debut on Friday, Jackson followed up with a dynamic 23-point effort in the second round. When Michigan State drew within one point at 54–53 in the second half and threatened to block the path of a championship favorite, Jackson deployed the countermeasures. The 6’8” freshman notched six straight points on a conventional three-point play and then drilled a nasty step-back bomb from long range, and just like that, the Jayhawks had some breathing room again.

"One of the things the coaching staff told me was to come out and try not to be excited—they knew I would be," Jackson said. "I came out and didn't listen. I was a little too amped up. As time went by, seeing a couple shots fall, trying to play defense, the game slowed down a little bit."

Perhaps a little supercharged for a matchup against his many friends on the Michigan State roster, Jackson missed his first three shots. He hit seven of his next 10 attempts and was lethal in big moments. He is arguably Kansas’s best player, and he apparently is rising to the occasion—or even beyond it. Frank's our most consistent player," Jayhawks coach Bill Self said. "Josh's ceiling is so much higher. About as high as anybody in the country."

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Watching Jackson may be a complicated endeavor from here out for some. He has been charged with one count of misdemeanor criminal damage to property after a Dec. 9 incident in which Jackson allegedly kicked the door and rear taillight of a car belonging to a female Kansas basketball player after he threatened to “beat” her, according to an affidavit released by the Douglas County District Court last Thursday. Jackson previously apologized for the incident and acknowledged to reporters here that he “made a couple mistakes that definitely could have been avoided.”

Some observers may concur with Kansas coach Bill Self’s assessment that Jackson accepted responsibility for his actions and then focus on his basketball exploits. Others may note that the consensus No. 1 recruit from the Class of 2016 didn’t miss a game as specific punishment for that December incident. Still others may take greater issue with police procedures following the episode (Self was present when Jackson was interviewed in December, per the affidavit) and Kansas possibly violating Title IX protocol.

Jackson will be emblematic of a Kansas team that has won big on the court but dealt with multiple problems off of it. “I’ve just learned that you can’t really make everybody happy, even as much as you want to,” Jackson said last week, when asked how he deals with scrutiny in any part of life. “Everybody makes mistakes. I’m happy with myself. I’m happy with who I am and the way I turned out. If anybody else isn’t happy with it, then I don’t know what to tell you.”

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2. Michigan State couldn’t take part in the Big Ten postseason reawakening, but it’s primed to continue it in 2017–18. A team that scuffled through the regular season and Big Ten tournament with 14 losses could be equipped to push toward the Final Four in a year’s time. It’s probably blasphemy in East Lansing to take heart in how close the Spartans came to winning in the NCAAs, but the thunderous comeback against No. 8 seed Miami and a very commendable performance against Kansas demonstrated how much Tom Izzo has to work with next season.

The cast on hand should include at least three starters from Sunday’s game against the Jayhawks. Cassius Winston should be back as a playmaker that could possibly be paired with Tum Tum Nairn as the sort of tiny backcourt that leads teams to Final Fours lately. They’ll benefit from the return of 6’9” forward Gavin Schilling from a season lost to knee injuries, which, along with the arrival of 6’10” five-star recruit Jaren Jackson, will provide the size that was glaringly missing this year. And then there is the faint hope for Miles Bridges.

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The 6’7” freshman swingman presumably is headed to the NBA Draft as a one-and-done prospect this off-season. But there are whispers that Bridges might consider a college encore. He’s said to like college. He’s said to have a great relationship with Nairn. None of this may be enough to turn down guaranteed millions as a first-round pick. But if it somehow is, the Spartans will be positively loaded. And that, in turn, is a boon for the Big Ten. The league was down this year at least in part because Michigan State was. It needs its flagship programs (looking at you, too, Indiana) to be good. The Spartans should be able to hold up their end of the bargain once more next season.

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3. It’s a good time for Landen Lucas to be on the rise. The 6’10” Kansas senior who floats under the radar—or at least more so than some of his teammates—posted a 10-point, 11-rebound double-double in just 25 minutes on Sunday. That represented his third straight double-double effort after 13 points and 14 boards in the Big 12 tournament loss to TCU and 13 points and 11 rebounds in the first round dismantling of No. 16 seed UC Davis. And presumably, Lucas will be the first line of defense against Purdue’s Caleb Swanigan, the Big Ten Player of the year and a Naismith Trophy finalist, in the Midwest region semifinal next week.

If Lucas is performing at this high of a level while staying out of foul trouble—he did pick up four personals against Michigan State—he’s a good bet to at least make Swanigan work for whatever offensive production he gets, while keeping the Boilermakers’ star honest on the other end of the floor as well.

"I'm not going to worry about foul trouble—obviously that's something that's going to be a factor, if they start calling it tight," Lucas said. "But both teams have the same issue. If they're going to call it tight, I post up strong, too, and he might be able to pick up a couple fouls himself. It's going to be something that both teams are going to be conscious of."

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