March 31, 2016

By John Heisler

Demetrius Jackson quickly turned a page this week for the University of Notre Dame men’s basketball program.

After announcing his plans Tuesday night to flip his focus to the professional ranks almost exactly 48 hours after the Irish finished their 2015-16 season with a loss in Philadelphia to top seed North Carolina in the NCAA East Regional title game, Jackson answered questions Wednesday and explained his plans.

He talked about meeting with Irish coach Mike Brey Tuesday afternoon in Brey’s office to discuss his future.

Jackson, who described thoughts of the NBA as being on the “back burner” during the season, laughed at the idea of this dream ever coming about:

“From the time I picked up a basketball, I didn’t really see myself moving to the highest level.”

But now he will.

The Joyce Center auditorium normally used for postgame interviews with head coaches provided the scene for Jackson’s remarks. Most of his teammates stuffed themselves into seats in the back corner and others stood and watched the proceedings.

Among the observers were Anthony Solomon and Martin Ingelsby, two of Brey’s assistants who were pretty capable guards in their own right in their collegiate days – Solomon at Virginia, Ingelsby at Notre Dame. They’ve both had ringside seats watching Jackson grow from the hot-shot local prospect (he played at Marian High School in nearby Mishawaka) into a player on the cusp of becoming a professional at his craft.

They observed the evolution unfold first hand.

Solomon notes the mental, emotional and leadership aspects that needed to be paired with Jackson’s spectacular physical abilities.

“After losing (Jerian) Grant and (Pat) Connaughton last year, remember, they left a legacy here on leadership,” he said. “And that’s something we’ve always valued within with our program. That was a daily maturation process for him.

“It’s one thing to be the secondary guy. This year he comes in as the primary guy–and when you’re the primary guy and you’re the leader you have to be there every day. He’s a quiet kid ââ’¬” he values his space and his own personal time. I learned that in the recruiting process about him. Even as a local kid, I can’t bombard him, he did not want to be recruited every day.

“The physical part is one thing at the next level, but that mental coping mechanism is something you have to have and it may be even more important than the physical. He did that this year in a big way. Dealing with the media after every game kept him on his toes because he had to be ready whether his team won or lost.

“But he’s a competitor now ââ’¬” there’s a solid assassin mentality there. He loves to win.”

Solomon noted the Wisconsin game (in the NCAA regional semifinal) as a perfect example of Jackson’s will to win:

“We needed a couple of stops. And he is really good at what I call ‘nose on the ball.’ He says, ‘I’m gonna guard you in the backcourt and zig-zag you ââ’¬” I’m gonna get in front of you and take it from you cleanly.’ And that’s what he did (six points in 16 seconds, including a huge steal and layup that put the Irish on top). Now that’s a high-level play there.”

There were three other games in 2015-16 where Solomon believes Jackson put the mental and emotional parts together particularly well with the physical aspects of his game.

“And when that happens, watch out,” said the Irish assistant.

“At Duke he put it together. On the road he controlled that building that day. That’s one of the most challenging environments in the country, and that was after knowing how we played there the previous year (a 30-point Irish loss). Boy, did he answer the bell.”

The Irish won 95-91 in Durham, North Carolina, as Jackson hit 10 of 16 shots and finished with 24 points and four assists.

“The second one was the Louisville game,” Solomon said. “He was going to his left up top and they switched and so he had a big guy on him. He went hard left and did a step-back to create space and knocked down the shot.”

The Irish won that one, too, with Jackson contributing 27 points (six of 12 from behind the three-point line).

“The other one was the (North) Carolina game the other night. He was the best guard on the floor. He was trying to carry us in a big way. It’s not natural for him to just come out and score. There’s a part of him where the point guard is supposed to distribute and make everybody else better. That’s his makeup and personality. He put up 26 and four (assists) and yet he created for himself and assisted others.

“If that’s the last game for him that said a lot about how he’s grown here, and there’s a lot more to come. There’s some special gifts there – strength, explosiveness, he’s got that burst, that body control ââ’¬” and he’s still young at being crafty as a finisher. His elevation and hang time are there.”

Solomon hasn’t forgotten some of the things Jackson did a year ago in the NCAA regional semifinal win over Wichita State – and the veteran assistant coach said the Shockers haven’t forgotten, either.

“In the Wichita State game ââ’¬” they make a run and we’re down one and he just changed the game that night in the next few possessions. (Wichita State coach) Gregg Marshall still talks about that. Bam!”

The play by play shows the Shockers taking a 38-37 lead 3:20 into the second half.

Thirty-seven seconds later Jackson nails a three.

Nineteen seconds later he connects for another three.

After assisting on a Bonzie Colson layup, Jackson nets a lay-in of his own at 13:31 and the Irish are back up by eight.

Notre Dame won 81-70 (Jackson ended with 20 points) and headed two nights later to play top-rated Kentucky in the NCAA Elite Eight.

“He (Jackson) did that throughout the season this year,” said Solomon. “It’s been about progress on and off the court – he’s made a lot of steps and he’s gonna take some more.”

Ingelsby laughs about seeing Jackson in the locker room and thinking maybe he picked the wrong sport:

“The one thing that sticks out to me is his physical gifts, his athleticism.

“We’ll send the guys to lift before we practice, and you see him getting ready. After he’s lifted he almost looks like a guy who should have a gold helmet on and be over on the football field.

“That’s what the NBA people love – they feel like they can mold him into a better basketball player. But the ability to get up and down the floor and the speed and quickness – those things will help make it a smooth transition for him.”

Someone pointed out to Jackson that he could become the only other first-round pick from the area after Shawn Kemp from Concord High School – and Jackson liked the idea of “representing the 574 (the local area code),” as he referred to it.

He puts himself on the list of all-star Irish players giving up a final season of eligibility – including Gary Brokaw, John Shumate, Adrian Dantley and Troy Murphy.

He talked about the times when he would meet Brey in the gym at nine or 10 at night and the two would work on the nuances of Jackson’s game.

As much as anything, Jackson appeared pleased and proud that he had done his part to help Notre Dame play in the NCAA Elite Eight in consecutive years. He referred to it as “changing the culture of postseason play.”

And if that’s the ultimate Notre Dame legacy Jackson leaves behind, Brey and every other Irish fan will be more than happy to second that notion.

John Heisler, senior associate athletics director at the University of Notre Dame, has been part of the Fighting Irish athletics communications team since 1978. A South Bend, Indiana, native, he is a 1976 graduate of the University of Missouri School of Journalism and a member of the College Sports Information Directors of America Hall of Fame. He is editor of the award-winning “Strong of Heart” series.