Tom Oates: UW's Traevon Jackson does it again with game on the line

TOM OATES | toates@madison.com | 608-252-6172 | Posted: Monday, February 10, 2014 7:40 am

As much as Tom Izzo hated to see Traevon Jackson’s 12-foot jump shot swish through the net, the basketball coach in him couldn’t help but admire the fearlessness of the junior point guard from the University of Wisconsin.

“I’ve watched two years’ worth of Jackson making game-winning shots,” said Izzo, the Michigan State coach. “So I put my best defender on him and give the guy credit, he made another one. He has the courage to take them and, as I told him after, made a big play.”

It was more than a big play, it was the kind of play that can alter a team’s season.

Jackson’s pull-up jumper with 2.1 seconds to play Sunday at the Kohl Center gave UW a 60-58 victory over Big Ten Conference-leader Michigan State and demonstrated the Badgers have recovered after a rough patch in which they lost five of six games.

For the most part, Jackson hadn’t been on top of his game during the Badgers’ recent struggles. His shooting was off, his turnovers were up and his decision-making wasn’t always sound. UW’s failure to get off a decent shot at the end in a recent one-point loss to Ohio State was largely pinned on him as well.

But on a day when many of his Badgers teammates displayed true grit in a bruising battle with the Spartans, Jackson showed once again he is not afraid to take — and make — a shot with the game on the line. Josh Gasser’s relentless defense on Michigan State sharp-shooter Gary Harris and clutch 3-point bombs by slumping shooters Ben Brust and Frank Kaminsky got UW close to the finish line, which is where Jackson took over.

As a sophomore, he hit three late shots that either won the game or sent it into overtime, all in Big Ten play. He did it again in a one-possession game against Florida earlier this season, clinching the victory with another pull-up jumper.

That’s why UW coach Bo Ryan and Jackson’s teammates were comfortable handing the ball to him after Adreian Payne’s 3-point basket with 10 seconds left had tied the game for Michigan State.

“I wanted it in his hands,” Gasser said. “Obviously, we have a bunch of guys who want to take it, but I think Trae really, really wants to take it. He’s confident that he’s going to make it and I’m confident that he’s going to make it. I don’t even think I crashed the boards. I saw it going up and I was like, ‘It’s going in.’ ”

UW fans who have watched Jackson struggle in recent weeks might not have shared that confidence, especially after Jackson dribbled into trouble in the final seconds against Ohio State and the Badgers could only manage an off-balance 3-point shot at the buzzer by forward Sam Dekker. Ryan defended his point guard on that play Sunday, saying Dekker’s spacing was off and that gave the Buckeyes a chance to double-team Jackson.

That seemed like a bit of a reach, but Ryan didn’t hesitate to put the ball in Jackson’s hands in a similar situation against Michigan State. Jackson came off a high pick by center Kaminsky, got Harris on his heels and buried the pull-up jumper.

“He’s the guy that’s earned that spot,” Ryan said. “He proved it last year with some big plays. But what happens is, if teams take that away from him, his job is to get it to the open guys. His decision-making has been a little sporadic at times, but in a last-second situation, if it starts in his hands, I feel very confident we’re going to get something. It doesn’t mean he has to end up taking the shot. But he was wide open on that pull-up.”

Jackson’s greatest asset as a player, his fearlessness, might also be his greatest drawback. Sometimes when he has the ball near the end of the shot clock, the first half or the game, it seems his mind is made up he’s going to get up a shot.

Ryan has been working with Jackson on his decision-making, but it wasn’t a factor Sunday. Jackson shook the taller Harris and got himself an open shot despite the lingering presence of the 6-foot-10 Payne.

“We just had a high ball screen,” Jackson said. “It wasn’t really a play drawn up. I figured that if I could drive to the rim, if I could get a clean shot there, then it would be a higher percentage, but I think Payne was kind of waiting for me to drive. I kind of saw him behind me and I figured if I got to the rim it would get swatted. So I rose up, took the pull-up, which I knew I could hit.”

Jackson’s confidence in his shot-making ability in such situations is off the charts, but he came by it honestly. As Izzo pointed out, he’s done it before. Multiple times.

For Jackson, it pays to have a short memory, not unlike a cornerback in football.

“That’s just something that you’ve got to develop as a player if you want to be good in this league,” he said. “Forget the last play and move on to the next. Even if you make it, you’ve got to go on to the next.”

Jackson has a long way to go before he’s a polished point guard, but after Sunday no one can question his ability to hit big shots with the game on the line.