MADISON, Wis. — Traevon Jackson’s broad shoulders felt especially heavy as he stood inside the Bradley Center last month, trying to explain how a team known for point guard play no longer had a reliable point guard to speak of.
Jackson, Wisconsin’s starting point guard, blamed himself. He had made just 1 of 6 shots, scored three points and turned the ball over four times during Wisconsin’s 60-50 loss at in-state rival Marquette. Even for someone making just his fourth career college start, he deemed the performance as unacceptable.
“I was pretty down,” Jackson said. “I remember talking to the media afterward and I didn’t want to talk to them. I was like really upset with myself because I thought we were really close to winning that game. If I’d have made a couple more plays at the beginning of the game to help keep us in a position to win and not turn the ball over, we would have been fine.”
” … I’m not saying I have to be a superhero or anything. I just didn’t do the things all the other four guys on the court did. I just was that weak link.”
Growing pains have come fast and furious at Jackson this season as he adjusts to the rigors of running a Division I team, but the sophomore from Westerville, Ohio, hasn’t allowed a few sub-par performances to derail his season. Instead, Jackson has consistently improved since the Marquette game, turning from a self-admitted weak link into a steadying presence in the backcourt.
Jackson will once again be in the starting lineup at point guard when Wisconsin (13-4, 4-0 in the Big Ten) plays at Iowa (12-5, 1-3) at 7 p.m. Saturday.
In the first 10 games of the season, which included Wisconsin’s loss at Marquette, Jackson connected on 15 of 48 field goal attempts (31.3 percent) and averaged 4.4 points.
In the last seven games — all Wisconsin victories — he has made 18 of 41 field goal tries (43.9 percent) and averaged 7.4 points. And in the Badgers’ past two victories against Illinois and Indiana — the two biggest wins of the season — Jackson is averaging 12.5 points while making 8 of 17 field goals.
Jackson said he hasn’t done anything differently in the weeks since the Marquette game to help his shot, but he is usually one of the last players to leave the practice court, working on jump shots well past the final whistle has blown.
“I mentioned earlier this year that it was only a matter of time before he really gets comfortable in that role because he does put in the time, all the extra time,” Badgers forward Ryan Evans said. “With a guy like that that’s in the gym all the time, you really trust him being out there on the court with you. It’s only a matter of time before he gets going, both confidence-wise and physically.”
Jackson’s renewed confidence was on full display during Wisconsin’s 64-59 upset victory at No. 2 Indiana on Tuesday, when he buried a mid-range jumper to put the team ahead 58-53 with 2:25 remaining. As he backpedaled down the court, he exuberantly pointed to the Badgers’ bench, enjoying the moment in a hostile environment. He finished with 11 points in 32 minutes, which tied a career high for minutes played.
“Guys are going to get me shots,” Jackson said. “You’ve got to knock them down. If you’re a guard in a D-I program, you’ve got to be able to shoot. So that just goes back to time in the gym, getting more reps up and continuing to stay confident.”
Of course, this opportunity was not supposed to belong to Jackson, who played in 17 games in a reserve role as a freshman and averaged 5.4 minutes per game.
During Badgers coach Bo Ryan’s tenure, the team has relied on the calming influence of a talented point guard in most seasons, from Devin Harris to Travon Hughes to Jordan Taylor. This year, the man tasked with that job was slated to be junior Josh Gasser, who had made 66 starts as an off-guard in his first two seasons with the program. But Gasser tore his ACL on Oct. 27, leaving the point guard duties to Jackson and George Marshall.
Marshall started the first six games of the season before Jackson emerged as the team’s No. 1 option, but neither demonstrated the ability to confidently lead amid constant defensive pressure in the early portion of the year.
Jackson said he could pinpoint the game when his season turned around but declined to name which game, choosing instead to keep the focus on Wisconsin’s team.
“I’ve seen it all year long in practice and workouts, so I’ve seen it before,” Badgers guard Ben Brust said. “I’m not surprised that it’s happening now in games. I think he’s definitely confident. There’s nothing wrong with that. You need that in your 1 man moving forward.”
Ryan said Jackson had developed as a good defender in transition but still needed to work on his half-court defense. He also credited Jackson for showing a willingness to take shots, drive to the rim and get fouled in recent games. This season, Jackson is shooting 78.6 percent from the free throw line (22 for 28).
Through 17 regular season games, this much is clear: What once seemed a liability for Wisconsin is now one of its strong suits. And the improved play at point guard has made the Badgers one of the most dangerous teams in a loaded Big Ten.
“We’ve gotten a lot better chemistry,” Jackson said. “We know what we need to do to be successful. I know what I need to do to help this team be successful. It’s simple. It’s not really magic tricks or anything. It’s just playing basketball.”