Advancing in the NCAA Tournament is more than just trying to create the best team. It’s also about preparing a squad that can eliminate as many weaknesses as possible.
It only takes one team — one gimmicky style, one bad matchup — to end a run in the most unforgiving tournament, and Kansas fans don’t need to be reminded of examples where talented teams have stumbled with a fatal flaw.
Knowing this makes Kansas guard Josh Jackson’s performance during his team’s two-game run at the CBE Classic all the more encouraging, especially when giving a quick peek towards March.
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Jackson, in earning Tournament MVP honors, showed he can do many things well. And even more importantly, he gave KU coach Bill Self an ability to quickly shift his lineup and offense to counteract a few scenarios that have ended KU’s NCAA runs in the past.
Think back to 2014. Second-seeded KU lost 60-57 to Stanford in the round of 32 when the Jayhawks couldn’t figure out how to create offense against the Cardinal’s 2-3 zone. The Jayhawks had a talented wing then, too — Andrew Wiggins was the No. 1 pick in the NBA Draft a few months later — but he played just one of the 26 zone possessions as the 4 man in the high post where he could create for himself or others.
Flash forward to Tuesday. Jackson — KU’s first No. 1 recruit since Wiggins — was in the playmaking 4 spot against Georgia’s 2-3 zone with good decision-making and precision passes.
One came at the 3:00 mark of the first half, when Jackson had the ball up top when Self scolded him: “Get in there, Josh! Let’s go!”
Good idea. Jackson received a pass, contorted his body awkwardly, then wrapped a pass to an open Devonté Graham for a three.
It wasn’t the only time he created for others.
He also did it twice in a row earlier in the half. The first time, he zipped an overhead pass to Lagerald Vick, who airballed a three.
After KU received the deadball rebound, Jackson was able to get it again in the high post, redirecting it in one motion to Graham on the wing for another outside shot.
“It’s just fun being in that spot,” Jackson said, “because I get to be the guy who decides where the ball goes.”
Self says there are a few reasons Jackson succeeds as KU’s playmaker in the zone. He’s tall, so he can see over defenders. He’s a good passer and also is comfortable shooting floaters over big men — a type of shot that makes some players uncomfortable.
“He’s just a natural in there,” Self said.
That’s not the only spot.
What if KU plays an opponent trying to go small? Go back to Monday’s game against UAB, when Self ran a set to get Jackson a post-up — something the coach has only done on rare occasions at KU with guys like Wiggins and Brandon Rush. Jackson was fouled on the play.
And what if Graham or Frank Mason are in foul trouble? There’s an “Easy Button” for that too, as three minutes later against UAB, Jackson ran KU’s “5 Up” high ball screen play as the point guard, whipping a no-look pass with his left hand to Svi Mykhailiuk for a three (and also Self’s favorite play of the night).
“He’s just an overall great player,” Graham said. “He can play 1-4. He can rebound. He can make plays.”
And he also has the versatility to make KU a less beatable tournament team, a Swiss Army knife who has the potential to bail KU out during the season’s most important minutes.