Maryland's head coach Mark Turgeon talks about his team this season and the progress of freshman forward Justin Jackson. (Baltimore Sun video)
Going into the season, Maryland men's basketball coach Mark Turgeon had it in his mind that he was going to start freshmen guards Anthony Cowan and Kevin Huerter.
At the time, Turgeon didn't think that freshman forward Justin Jackson, whose potential might have been greater than either Cowan or Huerter, was ready.
"The reason he didn't start the season was that we were still teaching him how to practice hard every day, and prepare the right way," Turgeon recalled Wednesday. "After the American game, I said, 'Alright, you need to start, Justin.' He didn't want to start versus Georgetown."
Jackson didn't think was ready to start Maryland's second game, especially against a high-profile opponent on national television.
It didn't take long to find out he was, with Jackson scoring 17 points in 26 minutes off the bench in a dramatic 76-75 victory at Verizon Center.
"Then he has the game against Georgetown, and I said, 'You don't have a choice; I'm starting you in the next game,'" Turgeon said. "Since then he's never looked back."
Less than four months later, the 6-foot-7, 225-pound Canadian and the No. 25 Terps will return to the Verizon Center for the Big Ten tournament.
Asked what he remembers about that mid-November game, Jackson said: "The crowd was electric. I just remember being out there with my guys, giving every inch of energy that we had. It was a tough game — went down to the wire. I felt that was a turning point in the season, where I felt we got closer."
Going into Friday's quarterfinal game for Maryland (24-7), Jackson is a much more confident player, boosted by a solid freshman season that includes leading the Terps in rebounding (6.2) and 3-point shooting (44 percent). Jackson's 10.7 points a game is second only to junior guard Melo Trimble.
It was the game against the Hoyas that Jackson showed his offensive versatility and range. He made seven of 12 field goal attempts, including three of five 3-pointers for 17 points. It was one of several impressive offensive performances for him this season.
The highlight might have come when Jackson had back-to-back double-doubles on the road in late January.
He had 28 points and 10 rebounds in a comeback win at Minnesota, and then three nights later went for 22 points and 12 rebounds in a win at Ohio State. He combined to shoot 17-for-27 (9-for-12 from deep) in those two games.
"I'm just thankful for my teammates for finding me, just giving me the opportunity to make those shots," Jackson said. "I feel like when we play together and we share the ball we can do so much."
Huerter, who might have surprised some with his passing and defense — including a game-saving block against Georgetown — said he knew the talent Jackson possessed after playing pickup ball with him in the fall.
"I think Justin showed in multiple times that he could do it all," Huerter said. "People were kind of going, 'Could he play like a guard, could he shoot?' He got hot in that game [against Georgetown] and carried it out throughout the season. We have really good trust in his abilities, for sure."
With defenses paying much more attention to his perimeter game after those double-doubles, Jackson struggled offensively for a stretch of games that coincided with the Terps losing five of seven, including three straight before finishing with wins over Rutgers and Michigan State.
In those seven games, Jackson averaged a little over eight points on just 35.8 percent shooting. After scoring in double figures in six of the first nine Big Ten games, Jackson scored in double figures just twice in the next eight before getting 15 against the Spartans.
"It was good to cap our regular season off with a win," Jackson said. "It really meant a lot. It was more about that, just sending my big brothers out right [on senior day]. They've been helping me out the whole season."
Said Turgeon: "Like all my young guys, they've all been better than expected. It's good to see Justin play the way he played on Saturday, making shots and rebounding and defending. He's a heck of a player; he's got a lot to give."
Jackson seemed unfazed by the mini-slump that also seemed to affect both Cowan and Huerter around the same time.
"I just look at it as basketball; sometimes the ball just doesn't bounce your way. I was playing as hard as I could," Jackson said. "I was doing whatever I could. It's not the end of the world. I just kept pushing. Thankfully my teammates were behind me 100 percent. They always told me to keep my head in the next play. At the end of the day, that's what I did."
Jackson knows the offseason will be important for his development. He said he plans working on his speed, lateral quickness and ballhandling. That could help him on defense guarding smaller players and on offense driving by bigger ones to help enhance his 7-3 wingspan.
"I feel like I've had a couple of good games. There's always that competitor in me that says, 'I'm not doing well enough and I could do better,'" Jackson said.
Said Turgeon, "You'll watch his game grow the rest of this season and then next year his game is really going to expand and turn into being a terrific player."