Josh Jackson rolled out of bed Thursday morning at Tulsa’s Renaissance Hotel, eager to begin what he figured would be one of the most exciting days of his young life.
“I thought it was Game Day. I was pumped up. We got to practice and I found out we weren’t even playing today. That was the first time I found out. I was like, ‘Ah, all right, be ready tomorrow,’’’ Jackson, Kansas’ 6-foot-8 freshman guard from Detroit, said with a smile.
It’s easy to understand why Jackson is so ready to get his first — and almost assuredly last — NCAA Tournament underway.
The likely one-and-done collegian, who said he’s been waiting “my whole life” to play in the Big Dance, hasn’t dressed for a game in 13 days after missing last Thursday’s 85-82 Big 12 Tournament quarterfinal loss to TCU while serving a one-game suspension.
“I’ve been itching to play for a while now,” Jackson said.
He will return to the starting lineup Friday for a 5:50 p.m. first-round NCAA Midwest Regional contest between No. 1-seeded KU (28-4) and No. 16 UC Davis (23-12) at BOK Center. That was the site of not a game Thursday, but a 30-minute KU shootaround and interview session with media members.
The Jayhawks also held a longer workout earlier Thursday afternoon at Tulsa Union High School.
“As you know, it’s been a while for me since I’ve played in a game. It definitely hurt me to sit over there (on bench) and watch my team lose. That will never happen again,” said Jackson, who chose to look at the bright side concerning the Jayhawks’ early exit in last week’s Big 12 tourney at the Sprint Center.
“It was a blessing in disguise to be honest,” Jackson said. “We got a lot of rest. We got some good practice. I feel we’re ready to go now. It (sitting out) made me more excited to play, but now we’re just ready to come out and show the world what we can do.”
A victory Friday would propel KU into Sunday’s second-round game against either Michigan State or Miami. Winner of that game would advance into the Sweet 16 next Thursday in Kansas City. A loss to UC Davis would end the Jayhawks’ season.
“I grew up a Michigan State fan, but to be honest I’m here with what I feel is the best team in the country right now,” Jackson said. I wouldn’t rather be anywhere else.
“I feel we’ve got the best guards. I feel we have things some teams just don’t have. In Landen (Lucas, senior forward) we’ve got a really good glue guy, a guy who does a lot of things that really don’t show in the stat book. I feel we care so much. We want to win more than anything. I feel we are going to do all we can to make that happen.”
The Aggies are led by Chima Moneke, a 6-6 junior forward, who averages 14.5 points and 9.5 rebounds and Brynton Lemar, a 6-4 senior guard who averages 16.1 ppg.
“They’ve got some great athleticism,” said Jackson, who is KU’s second-leading scorer (16.4 ppg to Frank Mason’s 20.8) and second-leading rebounder (7.2 rpg to Lucas’ 8.4). “I need to try to keep Moneke off the glass. He’s a great rebounder. Lemar … when the game gets tight, they are going to want the ball in his hands. I need to try to play to my athletic ability, run in transition, try to find open guys, be a facilitator.”
Jackson is able to try to do those things thanks to the end of his one-game suspension, which was announced before the Big 12 tournament after it was revealed he was cited for backing into a car on campus in February after not reporting the incident to police. At the time he did not inform coach Bill Self of the incident. He also was charged with misdemeanor property damage for an incident outside the Yacht Club in December.
“What I learned from it is we all make mistakes,” Jackson said Thursday. “Kids … you make one mistake the only thing you can do is don’t make it again.
“I have no comment on the drip of information that’s still coming out,” Jackson added, referring to an affadavit released Thursday with details of his alleged behavior at the incident outside the Yacht Club.
“I don’t think it’s really a distraction at all,” he added, asked specifically about distractions. “I think it was when it first came out, but it happened so long ago. I honestly don’t see any reason to keep talking about it. It’s already over. It’s said and done.”
The Jayhawks are happy to get Jackson back in the lineup.
“We were confident in the game he was missing that we should have won, but he just adds so much to this team, especially with the four-guard lineup that we like to go with so much,” Lucas said. “His presence is definitely important to us. He brings a lot of energy during runs and spurts that we really need. He’s a top-3, 5 pick in the NBA (Draft), so it’s nice to always have somebody like that on your team.”
Another senior leader, Mason, said he’s been impressed with Jackson’s frame of mind.
“I think he’s handled it great,” Mason said. “Josh is a great kid. We all love him. We tell him to focus on the things he can take care of and that’s exactly what he does. We’re proud of how far he came throughout his year and we’re just focused on today and not really worried about anything off the court.”
Self said the players “have rallied around this. Our guys have rallied around Josh. It’s not easy to have your name across the ticker each and every day about something when somebody keeps bringing up an additional thing or two when we already know this took place a long — quite a while ago. I don’t know that they (Jayhawks) have used it as motivation because I don’t think it should be motivation, but I also don’t think it should be an excuse and a distraction. I think it’s sometimes families you go through stuff and you just got to put blinders on and go at the job at hand and I think they’ve kind of found their basketball court as their safe haven.”
Self said Jackson the player, “is focused. He’s a tough-minded individual. Certainly his role or playing time, whatever will only be dictated by what happens between the lines. It won’t be dictated by anything else. I think he’s ready to go.”
Jackson is convinced the Jayhawks are ready for the tourney to begin.
“They (Aggies) will be fired up to play,” Jackson said. “After their game (Wednesday’s win over North Carolina Central in play-in game) they said they weren’t satisfied yet. They weren’t scared of anybody. I really respect that. They’ll be fired up and we’ll get their best shot.
“But I feel we’ve got a good grasp on it and we’ve got a lot of things figured out,” Jackson added. “I think a lot of people will see a different Kansas team coming into March Madness.”