Michigan State basketball coach Tom Izzo remembers creating the perfect sales pitch for Josh Jackson, the No. 1 prospect in the recruiting class of 2016 according to Rivals.com.
“I just got on my hands and knees and begged him. That’s what I did, and that wasn’t as good as Bill’s,” Izzo said Saturday at BOK Center, site of Sunday’s 4:15 p.m. second-round NCAA Tournament Midwest Region game between the ninth-seeded Spartans (20-14) and Jackson’s top-seeded Kansas Jayhawks (29-4).
“Was it sad and disappointing?” Izzo asked of losing Detroit native Jackson to KU coach Bill Self. “It was because I think it was a close fight to the finish. But I talked to Josh after it. Unlike some guys, he had the courage and respect to call me. A lot of kids don’t do that. I’ll always be a Josh Jackson fan — except for tomorrow night for 40 minutes.”
Jackson, who was mobbed by media members on Saturday, conceded that it was tough to say no to Izzo on decision day last April 11, especially because two of his best buddies growing up — Miles Bridges of Flint, Mich., and Cassius Winston of Detroit — had already committed to the Spartans.
Bridges, who last spoke with Jackson on Friday, leads the Spartans in scoring at 16.7 points per game and rebounding with 8.3 per game. Winston, who averages 6.7 points, hasn’t spoken with Jackson since the 2016-17 preseason but has texted his pal.
“He (Izzo) talked about me being able to come back home and play for the school I’ve always been rooting for since I was a kid,” said Jackson, KU’s second-leading scorer at 16.4 points per game and rebounder at 7.2 a game.
Jackson said he’s watched Michigan State games on TV as long as he can remember. In fact, he continued to follow the Spartans’ fortunes even after he headed to Napa, Calif., to attend Prolific Prep his final two years of high school.
“Being able to play with my friends … he really wanted me to think about how much fun that’d be. I still think about that from time to time, but I think I made the right decision,” Jackson noted.
Jackson recalls meeting Spartans coaching legend Izzo while playing in an event the summer between his freshman and sophomore years of high school.
“I was starstruck a little bit, growing up a Michigan State fan. I have a lot of respect for him,” Jackson said. “I loved watching college basketball as a kid especially around March. Michigan State … out of all the times I watched them, I always felt they had a really tough team. I’ve seen them win, lose games, but I’ve never seen them out-toughed by another team. I liked that. I definitely could see myself going there.”
Winston, a 6-foot guard who has has known Jackson since the second grade (6-7 guard/forward Bridges has known Josh since middle school), said he and other prospects who’d committed to Michigan State tried their best to get Jackson to sign with Izzo’s program last April.
“We’d all committed. He was the last piece, if you want to say that,” Winston said. “He liked it, but at the end of the day he made the best decision for himself. He’s a great kid. I wish him the best in every aspect of the game.”
Winston remembers that on Jackson’s campus visit he was shown a T-shirt that Bridges wore on his own signing day. On the front, it read #TheClass with the names of Jackson, Bridges and Winston, plus Michigan State commits Joshua Langford and Nick Ward.
“I do remember that shirt,” said Winston, who has since given his shirt to his mother. “It was a nice little gesture. It was fun. At the end of the day, no regrets.”
Jackson was never actually given a T-shirt of his own.
“I do remember it. I thought it was pretty neat,” Jackson said.
Jackson said his buddies on Michigan State’s team didn’t give him a hard time after he chose KU. Izzo was accepting as well.
“He was a little disappointed. I think he understood and respected my decision,” Jackson said. “My family (in Michigan) supported me. They were happy with the decision. A lot of Michigan State fans were hurt. Can’t please everybody.”
As it turned out, Jackson and Bridges — who played on both the same and different teams at various times during their AAU careers — figure to play big roles in Sunday’s result.
The winner of the game between the Jayhawks and Spartans will advance to Thursday’s Sweet 16 in Kansas City.
“I know Miles’ game a little bit. He knows mine. It’ll be interesting to see how the game goes tomorrow,” Jackson said. “I know a lot of moves he likes to do. I don’t think I’m going to tell everybody. I’m pretty comfortable with his game as he is with mine.
“We are competitors who love to win. Whoever wins the game is going to talk trash to the other one later. We’ll try to win the game so we won’t have to hear it from the other guy later.”
Bridges agreed that the players will leave it all on the floor, with no hard feelings after the game.
“I mean he’s like a brother to me,” Bridges said of Jackson. “Every time we play against each other, it’s always competitive. I expect it to be the same tomorrow. It’s fun because we know each other’s games. We know how competitive we are. Whoever gets to win gets to talk stuff at the end. Whoever goes out and plays the hardest is going to win because both teams know each other so well.”
Self, who won the recruiting war for certain one-and-done player Jackson, thinks he will do just fine Sunday against Bridges, who also is listed as a lottery pick by draftexpress.com in the 2017 NBA Draft.
“I know I’ve had that conversation with Josh. I don’t know if Tom’s had it with Miles,” Self said of talking to his standout freshman about how to approach the matchup with a best friend. “They are close and they are buddies based on what I’ve been told.
“I don’t see any way around them not being matched up against each other a lot. I’m not saying every possession … but I really believe what’s best for both teams is for them to guard somebody naturally they’re supposed to guard and that’s each other. It’ll be a fun matchup. I think he’s (Jackson) excited to play. I expect him to play well.”
In case anybody’s curious about Self’s recruiting pitch to Jackson compared to Izzo’s, here it is/was:
“Well, it’s just so much warmer in Kansas than Michigan, I guess,” Self said, laughing. “I don’t know. He would have been an unbelievable impact player wherever he went, and I do know that it was not an easy decision for him. But hey, we’ve lost enough guys to Michigan State, we should win one every now and then.”