Posted: Fri January 31, 2014 10:42AM; Updated: Fri January 31, 2014 2:22PM
Kelli Anderson
Kelli Anderson>INSIDE COLLEGE BASKETBALL

Finally at his natural position, Justin Jackson is soaring for Cincinnati

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Justin Jackson
Cincinnati's Justin Jackson is known to his teammates and fans for both his scowl and his smile.
Andy Lyons/Getty Images

Justin Jackson, Cincinnati's 6-foot-8, 225-pound senior center, has an on-court scowl of such cartoonish ferocity -- envision eyes staring balefully, jaw jutting forward, arm muscles tensed -- that it has become something of a thing around the Queen City. In addition to uncounted chills down opponents' spines, Jackson's "mean face" has generated a hashtag -- #justinjacksonmeanface -- cardboard cutouts that Cincinnati students wave at games and a Cincinnati Enquirer photo gallery surveying the best historic "mean faces" among local athletes.

But mean doesn't describe Jackson. "Off the court, he's the nicest guy, a total ham," says coach Mick Cronin, whose 7-year-old daughter, Samantha, calls Jackson her favorite Bearcat. "He's got a great smile, which is why he is such a favorite in Cincinnati. He's taken every picture anyone has asked of him."

Jackson the basketball player has so many facets he can't be captured in the box score. Even the extra stuff the Cincinnati coaching and sports information staff track, such as deflections and flying leaps into press row -- Jackson leads the team in both categories, with 7.3 and .33, respectively, per game -- don't do him justice. But Jackson's numbers are important, because they represent an astonishing leap in performance that has been critical to the 13th-ranked Bearcats' surprising 20-2 season.

After Jackson helped the Bearcats extend their American Athletic Conference unbeaten streak by delivering 11 points, nine rebounds, two blocks and two steals in a 69-66 win at Louisville Thursday night, he is averaging 11.1 points -- second on the team behind Sean Kilpatrick's 19.5 -- on 55 percent shooting, best among Bearcats playing more than eight minutes a game. Jackson leads the team in rebounds (7.0), steals (1.8) and blocks (3.3), and is a major reason the Bearcats are holding opponents to just 57.3 points a game and are fifth in the nation in defensive efficiency, according to kenpom.com.

As a junior last season, the only thing Jackson led the team in was fouling out. (He did it six times, earning a foul every 7.23 minutes he was on the floor.) "That was maybe Justin's biggest problem on the court -- that I couldn't keep him on the court," says Cronin. "He had two fouls before you could get to your seat."

There were other issues. Jackson had always been a talent on defense, able to guard any player and any play. The roster of opponents he has personally slowed ranges from former Connecticut star Kemba Walker, a 6-1 point guard, to Pitt's burly 6-11 former center, Gary McGhee. But Jackson was limited offensively. Last year he averaged just 3.8 points on less than 42 percent shooting, a dismal rate for an interior player. But that was the problem. Jackson didn't realize he was an interior player. He hadn't yet answered Cronin's call to embrace his identity.

*****

As a grade-schooler in Cocoa Beach, Fla., Jackson was clear on what he was not, and he was not a baseball player. He pitched and played first base in local youth leagues -- mostly because baseball was the sport his dad, Larry, a pitcher in the Reds and Astros systems back in the 1970s, had excelled at. But Jackson never liked the game. After getting his dad's blessing, he switched to basketball in seventh grade.

Just 6-7 and 188 pounds as a high school junior, Jackson was overshadowed on an AAU team that included future Duke signee Austin Rivers and future Kentucky Wildcat Brandon Knight. But Jackson was the main focus for Cronin, who loved how hard he played. Cronin remembers sweating out Jackson's games, hoping the other Division I coaches sitting in the stands to scout Rivers and Knight didn't notice what a diamond in the rough their gangly teammate was. "I was so paranoid about people starting to jump on Justin that I'd sit there hoping he'd turn his ankle," says Cronin.

When Jackson arrived at Cincinnati, he was brimming with energy, aggressiveness, athleticism and the conviction that, at 6-8, he should be a small forward. For three years, he tried and failed to convince himself and the staff that's what he was.

After last season, Cronin invited Jackson into his office and spread out a printout from Synergy Sports on his desk. The cold statistical evidence was right there: Jackson wasn't a good perimeter shooter. Of the 11 shots he took from the arc that year, only one connected. Worse, he was a lousy interior scorer. When it came to finishing plays around the rim, Jackson was in the 14th percentile. "Some of it was because he wasn't strong enough and he was too quick and off balance," says Cronin. "A lot of it was because he wanted to spend all of his time becoming a jump shooter."

Together Cronin and Jackson watched clips of his plays at the rim, noting where he was rushing and where he was shooting with one hand. Cronin told Jackson he needed to learn how to finish a play with two hands and two feet; he needed to learn how to play with power. "I told him, I don't need you to take more shots; I need you to score more points," recalls Cronin. "At first I think there was apprehension. He's always held out hope of being a forward who can shoot. I told him, there's a path to greatness for you, and that is not the path. You gotta be (former Bearcats) Kenyon Martin or Jason Maxiell. Those guys aren't that tall, and they make millions of dollars."

Jackson says that conversation "unleashed the dragon." He spent the summer packing on nearly 20 pounds of muscle. He cut down on junk food, learned how to cook and forced himself to go to bed before 1 a.m. He honed post moves. He learned how to finish. He became powerful. "You can't move me the way you could move me two years ago or last year," says Jackson. "My strength used to be my weak point. Now I have no weak point on defense."

Cronin agrees. "You can't exploit him on defense, and that makes us so hard to play against," he says. "Most shot blockers struggle out on the floor in pick-and-roll defense. Justin can defend big guys, he can defend guards, he can defend power, he can defend the pick and roll."

Jackson is still aggressive, but he's more discriminating about it. He has cut his infraction rate to one every 9.2 minutes, and he has only fouled out once this year, against Temple on Jan. 14. He has yet to shoot a three.

Jackson now shows up at home games 2 1/2 hours before tipoff to shoot and run through drills. His energy level, which has always been high, is now off the charts. "On a scale of 1 to 10, I'd say he's a 30," says Kilpatrick. "On those days when you think practice is going to be a drag, he's one of those guys whose energy lifts you up."

"You could be embarrassed if you don't play hard on this team, that's the effect Justin has," adds assistant Darren Savino. The best evidence for how hard Jackson plays can be found in that 7.3 deflection rate. "Usually the center would only get deflections by blocking shots," says Savino. "So Justin's not just blocking shots, he's deflecting passes and running around like a maniac."

Jackson's game still has flaws: His free throw rate is a lowly 49 percent (down from 51 percent last year but up from 30 percent his freshman year.) But his impact is so undeniable he has already earned three American Athletic Conference Player of the Week honors. "I feel as confident as I've ever been and that's a new experience," says Jackson. "I'm may be late getting here, but better late than never."

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