Jackson, Syracuse defying critics

There was Rick Jackson, the kid known as a flabby, overweight and undetermined sidekick to Scoop Jardine since the two first met in sixth grade, giving Michigan State a taste of their own medicine.

Jackson, who dropped 25 pounds since last season, dominated in the post, scoring 17 points and grabbing 16 rebounds Tuesday night against the team and the coach with an identity based on its toughness.

"He was a pro tonight," Spartans coach Tom Izzo said of the 6-foot-9, 239-pound Syracuse big man. "He was tougher than us. They were tougher than us."

"We played like a bunch of girls tonight," added Michigan State leader/forward Draymond Green. "And that’s the truth."

The entire Syracuse team was more than tough enough, answering the critics who questioned whether they were even a legit Top 25 team with a resounding 72-58 victory against Michigan State at Madison Square Garden.

It was justified after the Orange struggled to beat William & Mary on its home court, barely took care of Michigan and Georgia Tech in Atlantic City and narrowly got past N.C. State at the Carrier Dome.

But Jim Boeheim’s team proved that even after losing lottery pick Wesley Johnson, shooter/leader Andy Rautins and starting big man Arinze Onuaku, it’s still going to be a player in the Big East.

Thus far, the reason has been the sudden emergence of Jackson.

This isn’t the same Jackson that has called the Carrier Dome home for the past three seasons.

Jackson started all 35 games a year ago and put up solid numbers: 9.7 points and 7 boards per contest.

He had three double-doubles all of last season. He’s already got seven and we’re just nine games into this season.

This year, after Boeheim pleaded with him to drop some excess baggage, Jackson has slimmed down and become a dominant inside presence, averaging 13.6 points and 12.7 rebounds.

"He’s finally made up his mind he’s going to go after it. I’ve never seen him play this hard," Jardine said of Jackson. "If he plays like this, I don’t think anyone can beat us."

Well, let’s not get carried away.

However, Syracuse — in its home away from home at Madison Square Garden — proved it’s not the fraud that some had contemplated entering the matchup with Michigan State.

Boeheim has one less question to ask himself if Jackson can continue to consistently produce at this rate. It’ll also take the pressure of highly touted freshman Fab Melo, who is a work in progress, to have to produce this season.

This was a game in which the Orange went at Michigan State and attacked the Spartans’ frontline — and Jackson set the tone early and often with his relentless play. Syracuse outscored the Spartans, 42-24, in the paint.

Why the major difference in Jackson’s play?

"It’s his senior year," Jardine said.

Cha-ching.

Jackson is like every other starter at a major college program — with dreams and aspirations of playing at the next level. For the first three years, he was pegged by most NBA executives as an overseas kid.

But now the pros have begun to take notice.

"I’m hoping somewhere out there wants a guy who wants to rebound," Jackson said.

If he maintains his average and hauls down a dozen boards a game in the Big East this season, he’ll have no problem finding a taker in the NBA.

The Orange still have their issues, playing down to the level of their competition, inability to make shots from the perimeter and even leadership.

Syracuse made just 2-of-11 shots from deep against Michigan State, but it was somewhat irrelevant since they got virtually whatever they wanted in the paint.

The Orange came in and made that tough, hard-nosed team from the Big Ten look like, well, a bunch of girls.

"We’re a pretty-boy team now," Izzo said after the loss. "We’re not a smashmouth team."

"I can’t remember ever getting our ass kicked like that," Izzo he added. "But you’ve got to give them credit."

In one night, they earned it.