Jaren Jackson Jr. dominates IU on defense despite 'freshman mistakes'
BLOOMINGTON, Ind. — He couldn’t put his finger on it, but MSU forward Jaren Jackson Jr. wasn’t happy with his performance Saturday night.
The box score looked fairly normal for Jackson, a 6-foot-11, 242-pound freshman, in No. 5 MSU’s 63-60 win against Indiana at Assembly Hall.
The Carmel, Indiana, native scored 10 points, three rebounds, two assists and seven blocks in 25 minutes. He was one block shy of tying the personal best he set against Rutgers on Dec. 5.
That line isn’t very different from the 11.4 points, 6.3 rebounds and 1.2 assists he averaged in 22.9 minutes heading into the game.
“He had some good moments, and he had some freshman moments with a lot of learning,” said junior shooting guard Matt McQuaid, who led MSU with 12 points.
Those mistakes could have cost the Spartans (22-3, 10-2 Big Ten) the win.
“I think I could have done a lot more as far as, like, coverages and switching assignments,” Jackson said. “I just had some lapses. Maybe it was fatigue, maybe it’s the crowd or something. I don’t really know what it was.”
MSU head coach Tom Izzo said he could attribute some of Jackson’s “fatigue” to the team’s recent slate of games. Saturday marked the third game the Spartans played this week, and MSU is on the road again Tuesday to play Iowa at 9 p.m. Three of MSU’s next four are on the road.
“I think when you go three games in this stretch, and on the road — what I’m looking at is I’m trying to adjust to a lot of things in this new millennial, and one of them is we’ve really gone light in practice,” Izzo said. “We just have so many days and so little practice time. We’ve gone light and instead of it helping us, maybe it hurt us.”
Some of the mistakes allowed the Hoosiers to erase the Spartans’ eight-point lead with five minutes left and energized a home crowd of 17,222 — many of which Jackson said he knew. Between texts from hometown friends making the hour and 18 minute drive Assembly Hall, or messages from his high school friends at La Lumiere, a private school outside South Bend.
“You still have to remember he’s just a freshman,” sophomore wing Miles Bridges said. “It’s his first time coming to Assembly Hall, (which is) by far, besides Duke, the hardest place to play for me.”
But what Jackson can take out of Saturday’s game was another consistent showing of his defensive dominance in the league. Jackson leads all Big Ten players with 89 blocks — 25 more blocks than Purdue’s Matt Haarms, who is second in the league. Jackson surpassed MSU’s single season block record, set by Ken Johnson in 1985, against Maryland on Jan. 28.
Heading into Saturday, the freshman standout accounted for 42.9 percent of MSU’s total blocks.
“He’s really good,” Indiana coach Archie Miller said. “I don’t think he just emerged tonight and said, ‘look at me.’ He’s been doing it all year. He’s a dominant defensive player. He leads our conference in shot blocking. … He just clears up every drive, every mistake that you make he’s there. And we talked a lot about it before the game.”
What Jackson has in his favor, however, is teammates that went through the same growing pains last season. And they’re here to help him bring his game to the next level.
“I can tell you first-hand I went through it, too,” sophomore point guard Cassius Winston said. “I went through it a lot. Just this time, we’re holding our position. Last year, we’re not the team last year. Last year, we’re scraping games. This year we have big things that want to happen, so he doesn’t get that leeway to grow as much. But also at the same time, we have so many people that can kind of guide him along.”