GREENSBORO — Old school isn't always the best thing for a freshman transitioning to the grind of postseason play in a Power Five conference, but there's no question it was exactly what Justin Jackson needed.
Through his first 25 starts of the season, Jackson was struggling to balance what he knew with what he was supposed to learn.
Against N.C. State, he learned his most important lesson yet. Old school is very, very good.
"Now, seeing some of the hard work pay off is feeling really good," he said.
"(It's a) sense of how it used to feel (in high school), though I think I’m a better player since I’ve come to college."
Jackson had a game-high 16 points against the Wolfpack that night, though the game itself was almost nothing but lows.
Wednesday was different. In UNC's first postseason game of the year, Jackson again had double digits — for the sixth game in a row — and his team rallied around him, closing out an 81-63 win over Boston College in the second round of the ACC Tournament.
There was a noticeably different side to Jackson — whose 4-for-7 shooting netted him 12 points — against the Eagles, and Marcus Paige thinks he knows why.
"He’s battling and competing," said Paige, who finished with 17 points and nine assists. "Playing against (Aaron) Brown, who's a big, stocky guard, It’s going to bring out the physicality in you, even if you’re a skinny guy like Justin."
Yep. That was it, said the skinny guy.
"Every time you go up for an offensive rebound, they’re going to check you," Jackson said. "Every time you try to make a move, they’re going to bump you. Either you sit back and let that happen to you, or you come back at them with a little bit more."
Were there really two choices for him? Of course not.
For most freshmen, that response wouldn't come so naturally, but every once in a while, it's easy to forget how old the swingman is.
In the second half, Jackson passed up an open three and swung the ball to Paige for a more-open three. The next play, he was the first player down the court, earning a half-court pass from J.P. Tokoto that he finished despite a foul, giving the Tar Heels a 39-28 lead.
"When Theo (Pinson) got to play in the Duke game, you could see he hadn’t had quite the experience that Justin’s had as a freshman," Paige said. "Justin’s been through the grind of the ACC now. He’s starting to play more like a veteran, taking what comes to him. I don’t really look at him as a freshman anymore."
Paige isn't the only one, and rightly so. Brice Johnson, whose plate held 17 points with a side of nine rebounds, said sometimes Jackson's youth can rear its ugly head, but for the most part, there's an easy cure.
"Get him in the flow of the game and he’ll be just fine," Johnson said.
That was definitely the first part of the equation, but Johnson left out the final result.
Get Jackson back to old school, and he'll be just fine. Get him fine, and UNC will follow suit.
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