CINCINNATI — It doesn’t take long to figure out the energy level of the University of Cincinnati basketball team. Just watch No. 5 for the Bearcats, Justin Jackson. It usually doesn’t take him long to grab a rebound, block a shot or hit the floor diving for a loose ball.
Or give the crowd a shot of his mean face.
The best thing for UC is that Jackson is contagious.
Jackson scored 17 points, grabbed six rebounds, blocked five shots, and had five steals with 16 deflections, three assists and no turnovers as the Bearcats beat Southern Methodist University 65-57 Wednesday night at Fifth Third Arena in the first game for both teams in the new American Athletic Conference.
UC forward Justin Jackson has been the AAC Player of the Week each of the last two weeks, posting three straight double-doubles.
On a night that UC shot just 36.5 percent from the field it still won by outhustling SMU on defense, creating turnovers and making 23 of 31 free throws. Jackson was the impetus of it all.
"Justin Jackson was as good as you could possibly be today on probably every phase of the game," said Cronin. "It’s almost impossible to have a better stat line than he had, put forth a better effort than he put forth."
Sean Kilpatrick is the known quantity for UC. He is the best player on the team. He is going to lead the team in scoring. He is going to handle pressure situations, even when things aren’t going his way offensively. They weren’t going Kilpatrick’s way Wednesday. He was just 3-of-12 from the field and ended the game with 13 points.
UC will overcome those kinds of games from Kilpatrick because of what Jackson brings to the court and how it affects the rest of his teammates, including Kilpatrick. Cronin is big when it comes to his team getting deflections. The Bearcats had a season-high 47 deflections against SMU.
"That’s something that we expect from him. That’s something that’s in his DNA," said Kilpatrick. "That’s something he doesn’t lack at all. You don’t have to tell him to play with that type of energy."
Jackson has been the AAC Player of the Week each of the last two weeks, posting three straight double-doubles. The Bearcats have won five straight games since losing back-to-back at New Mexico and Xavier, and it’s no coincidence Jackson has played his best in those games.
He was just 4-of-11 from the field for 11 points and 11 rebounds in the two losses. In the five-game winning streak he’s shooting 33-of-53 (62.3 percent), averaging 15.8 points, 9.8 rebounds with 19 blocks and 12 steals.
Jackson left the game briefly in the second half after bumping knees with an SMU player. He also took a leap across some seats and fans next to the court chasing down a loose ball. Those were just a couple of the times his body wasn’t fully upright, yet, he was back on the court as the Bearcats closed out the game down the stretch.
"I’m a machine," said Jackson, drawing laughter from the media contingent. "My role has changed. My role is to be a scorer this year and that’s what I’ve been doing. My role the last three years was to be a defensive player and be an energy guy. That’s what I did. I did what the coach asked me to do."
SMU went on a 12-0 run in the first half, building an 8-point lead before UC rallied back. Jackson was in the middle of that rally but the Bearcats also got contributions from sophomore Shaquille Thomas and junior Jermaine Sanders, both of whom scored 10 points. Six different Bearcats had steals as they totaled 11 and forced SMU into 17 turnovers.
SMU was averaging 74.8 points and 16.2 assists a game coming into the game after winning 10 of its first 12 games. The 57 points were the second-lowest total of the season for the Mustangs.
"They are well-coached. They try hard. Every kid comes in and gives them energy," said SMU coach Larry Brown.