A forgettable offensive half of basketball might have turned out differently if Ohio State had the services of a player whose contributions have slid under the radar.
As the Buckeyes were stumbling through a 13-point second half Sunday at Michigan State, they had to contend with the Spartans for most of it without a healthy C.J. Jackson. The senior guard rolled his ankle while being fouled with 16:13 to play and Ohio State leading 31-30, and he was conspicuous in his absence at both ends, underscoring his importance on a team that has seen sophomore center Kaleb Wesson earn most of the headlines.
For the final 13:25 of the game, Jackson played just 5:12 as the Spartans won going away 62-44.
“I think he would’ve helped on both ends,” coach Chris Holtmann said on Tuesday. “We had some situations where we got attacked, one of our young kids got attacked in a certain couple situations there that broke the game open. And you’d like to think that C.J. would’ve been better defensively in that situation. Also, I think his ability to make a play, make a shot.”
On Wednesday night against Northwestern, the Buckeyes will look to Jackson as he shakes off the ankle injury and they try to end a two-game losing streak.
Although occasionally turnover-prone, Jackson has been instrumental when Ohio State has had success. In the Buckeyes’ 16 wins compared with its nine losses, Jackson is shooting better from the field (45.2 percent to 37.8 percent) and from three-point range (44.0 percent to 35.9 percent) and he has a 1.45 assist-to-turnover ratio compared with 1.13 in losses.
He also has played a team-high 769 minutes while trying to hold down a leadership role and keep the team’s NCAA Tournament hopes afloat. That has been a tall order for a lightly recruited kid out of the Charlotte, North Carolina, area who, when he transferred to Ohio State from Eastern Florida State Community College, was viewed as a career backup at best.
“When I came here, I just wanted to be part of something special,” he said. “That was the biggest thing. I wouldn’t have expected to be the leader by my senior year or anything like that. It’s definitely an honor to be a leader of a team, the captain of a team at a program like this. I’m thankful for every day I get to be a part of it.”
Holtmann has still been looking for more vocal leadership from Jackson while also hoping to get more of that from his supporting cast. Graduate transfer Keyshawn Woods and former walk-on Joey Lane have contributed, Holtmann said, but in many ways this has been Jackson’s team. On Tuesday, sophomore Kyle Young credited Jackson for reaching out to him after last season and helping to build a better friendship to better prepare him for a significant role this year.
The hope is that it will all lead to Ohio State finishing the season where it wants to be.
“I did see the first March Madness commercial two days ago,” Jackson said. “It’s coming to an end. It’s really, really close. It’s a really fun group of guys. I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else than with them.”