Nobody at Ohio State gets very worried if a Buckeye game is close in the final minutes, because that's what brings out the best in Jimmy Jackson, and his best is about as good as it gets these days in college basketball. The 6'6" swingman from Toledo has a way of taking a game and making it his own. He did it again last Saturday against Michigan in Ann Arbor, exploding in the final eight minutes of a 67-57 victory that lifted the Buckeyes' record to 12-0, their best start since Jerry Lucas and John Havlicek were hanging around Columbus a lifetime or so ago.
It didn't really matter that, until that point, Jackson had more or less been a no-show, the result of his playing 39 hard minutes in the Buckeyes' taut 63-59 home court victory over Iowa, a game that ended only 41 hours before tip-off against the Wolverines. But at crunch time Jackson blocks out everything except getting the job done. Whatever it takes—a silky jumper, a penetration and look-away pass, a nifty steal—JJ will do it.
And so it was against Michigan. Held to only four points and five shots in the first 31½ minutes, Jackson dumped 12 points on the helpless Wolverines—it must have felt like being run over by one of those four-wheel-drive numbers they build down the road—the rest of the way. He hit jumpers, slashed inside for a dunk and a reverse layup and converted his free throws. When it was over, the Buckeyes were 2-0 in the Big Ten and dreaming of their first conference title in 20 years.
Afterward, Michigan coach Steve Fisher, who had believed the Buckeyes were ripe for an upset in their first true road test, had an ominous message for Ohio State's future opponents. After praising Jackson as "one of the premier sophomores in the country," Fisher said, "Ohio State is very good now, but by mid-February they'll be a lot better."
That's sweet music in Columbus, where the basketball team is taking some of the sting out of the football team's miserable season-ending loss to Air Force in the Liberty Bowl. While the radio talk shows are full of grousing about football coach John Cooper, basketball coach Randy Ayers, in only his second year on the job, has become so popular around town that he and his wife, Carol, have to travel 358 miles to Chicago or 111 miles to Cincinnati to enjoy quiet nights out.
Everybody loves a winner, of course, and the fans in Columbus are so excited about their team's chances in the Big Ten and the NCAA tournament that historic St. John Arena is crackling with energy and anticipation, just as it did during the halcyon Lucas-Havlicek era. That was back when Ohio State's three-year record (78-6) included the 1960 NCAA championship and final-game losses to Cincinnati in the following two years.
Nobody, certainly not Ayers, is saying the current Buckeyes are anywhere near that good...yet. However, Ayers has surrounded Jackson with all the components necessary for a championship contender. Junior point guard Mark Baker has no peer in the Big Ten, junior wingman Jammaal Brown is a superb defender and shooter, and 6'8" senior center Perry Carter compensates for his lack of height with a 230-pound frame so perfectly proportioned that Columbus Monthly put him on the cover and declared him owner of the city's best body.
"I can't understand," says Ayers slyly, "why they didn't give it to me."
Only 34, Ayers, the Big Ten's youngest coach, has come a long way in a short time. A native of Springfield, Ohio, he attended Miami of Ohio after turning down a scholarship offer from Ohio State. When Ayers decided he wanted to go into coaching, Darrell Hedric, his college coach, prevailed upon an old friend, Bobby Knight, to recommend Ayers for an assistant's job at West Point, where Knight had begun his career. Ayers got the job, and two years later he joined Ohio State as a volunteer assistant under Eldon Miller. After Miller was fired in 1986, new coach Gary Williams retained Ayers and gave him a full-time job in 1987.
When Williams left for Maryland before last season, he recommended that Ayers be his successor. Some help. Ayers was eventually hired, but only after Ohio State interviewed Nolan Richardson of Arkansas, Jim Crews of Evansville, and Pete Gillen of Xavier. The clincher for Ayers may have been the endorsement he got from the Ohio State players, some of whom went to athletic director Jim Jones and pleaded that he be given the job.
It was, after all, Ayers, as Williams's chief recruiter, who had helped build the team. He had a hand in getting all the current players and was the main man on Jackson, whose two finalists were Ohio State and Syracuse. "I probably would have still come to Ohio State even if they hadn't hired Coach Ayers," Jackson says, "but I was very happy when I heard that he got the job."
Ayers was 17-13 as a rookie coach, mostly because Jackson emerged as the league's best freshman, leading the Buckeyes in scoring (16.1 points per game), assists (110) and minutes (1,035). Jackson also introduced JJ Time to the Buckeye faithful by nailing critical last-second shots against Louisville and Michigan.
This season, with his entire team back, Avers made a daring move, inserting 6'8" senior Treg Lee as the starting power forward in place of 6'7" junior Chris Jent, who started every game last season. Lee had been one of the most heavily recruited players in the nation in 1987, but he had such a hard time adjusting to the college game that he cracked the starting lineup in only four games before this season. For harmony's sake, Ayers sold Jent on becoming a classic sixth man—a guy who creates havoc with his hustle and enthusiasm off the bench.
Once the 1990-91 season began, Ayers took a lot of heat for his laughable early-season schedule, which included such victims as Youngstown State, Bethune-Cook-man, Delaware State, Chicago State, Wright State, American and Tennessee State. However, Ayers kept his cool, because he knew the cream puffs allowed Lee and Jent to build confidence and adjust to their new roles. In addition, the coach was able to get plenty of playing time for 7-foot center Bill Robinson, a project whose continued improvement will take much of the rebounding pressure off Carter and Lee.
By the time Ohio State actually met a worthy opponent, Georgetown, on Dec. 22, Ayers had his team ready, and the Buckeyes responded with a 71-60 win over the Hoyas, who were playing without the injured Alonzo Mourning. Jackson led Ohio State with 17 points, but Ayers was even more pleased with Lee, whose 13 points and 10 rebounds indicated that he had, indeed, finally arrived.
"Perry and I ain't twin towers, but maybe we're, I don't know, the two horsemen or something," said Lee. "It seems like the rest of the guys, once I get on track during a game, are free to eat their own lunch, so to speak."
Whatever that means, it's clear that Jackson is the man who fuels the Buckeyes' fire. Off the court he is a quiet kid, almost studious-looking when he puts on the stylish eyeglasses he wears only for effect. Jackson plans to major in financial marketing and, following his inevitable NBA career, to run his own business.
On the floor Jackson makes the occasional flashy pass or spectacular dunk, but he's mostly an economical player who always seems to be in the right place. More Oscar, maybe, than Magic. He has the size and skills to slide from small forward to shooting guard to the point, and Ayers uses him at all three positions. On other teams so much attention focused on one player might spark jealousy, especially among older players, but Jackson's teammates seem to appreciate his skills and unselfish attitude. Though he leads the team in scoring with a 17.2 average, he often passes up shots to dish off, sometimes to a fault. "Jimmy doesn't walk around like he's better than anybody else," says Jent, "and that helps a great deal."
Ayers and Jackson have been close since Jackson was a freshman starter at Toledo Macomber High, and today they're more big brother-little brother than coach-star. Ayers likes to tell Jackson what a fine player Ayers was at Miami; Jackson will fire back by saying it was too bad Ayers wasn't good enough to play at Ohio State. "When I make a good pass in practice, he'll tell me he had 364 like that at Miami," Jackson says, chuckling.
Kidding aside, Ayers calls Jackson "a special player." He also thinks this team is special. Ironically, Ohio State must learn to put away opponents early, especially inferior ones, rather than wait for Jackson to do his thing. Of course, maybe the Buckeyes are like everyone else. Watching JJ work under pressure is such a pleasure that who can blame his teammates if they look forward to close games?