CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- Justin Jackson came back to North Carolina just for the opportunity to go all the way back home.
Home for the 6-foot-8 sophomore forward is from Tomball, Texas, with a population of about 12,000. Jackson said it has a downtown, but “you can snap your fingers and you’re already through it.”
The best part is that Tomball is only about 40 minutes from Houston and the Final Four.
"I've said this multiple times, [the Final Four] could be in Canada, it could be in Mexico, wherever, but just to be in the Final Four is something we've all worked on and worked for this entire season," Jackson said. "The fact that it's back in my hometown just kind of adds on to the excitement factor."
It was part of the allure for Jackson to return to school instead of turning pro after his freshman season. Jackson and the Tar Heels are just two victories away from completing his goal of winning it all.
“Honestly, I haven’t even looked back on my own decision because, for me, my goal was to come back and play with these guys and win a national championship,” Jackson said.
Playing for the title was important to Jackson. Just how important? He likely could have been a first-round NBA draft pick had he left school after last season. Jackson came on strong in the final stretch of his freshman season, including the three games of the NCAA tournament.
Each of the consensus top eight players ranked ahead of Jackson in the class of 2014 declared for the NBA draft last year. So did four of the five players ranked behind him. All but Cliff Alexander, who was third in a composite of ESPN, Scout, Rivals and 24/7 Sports recruiting rankings, were first-round picks.
Jackson and Seton Hall’s Isaiah Whitehead were the only two who returned to campus. And Jackson is sure glad he waited.
“I didn’t feel like I was ready,” Jackson said. “I ended the season pretty well, but I didn’t feel like I was all the way there. The second part, I just love Chapel Hill, I love this team, so it wasn’t a hard decision to come back.”
Sometimes the hardest decision for Jackson is knowing when to be aggressive and when to pass up a shot. As a freshman, he often deferred to the veteran players on the team. Even this season he has had a tendency to sometimes disappear in the offense.
But senior guard Marcus Paige predicted that for the Heels to win two games in Houston, Jackson will have to be at his best.
“Everyone wants him to be aggressive because he’s such a good scorer,” Paige said. “We try to push him to hunt shots and to be aggressive and to get on the boards because we know how talented he is.”
Sometimes Jackson doesn’t seem to know it. He was arguably the most hyped recruit in Chapel Hill since Harrison Barnes. But he’s still working on having a strong presence on the floor.
“I don’t know that we’ve had a 3-man that’s like him, with the slender frame, the ability to shoot, put the ball on the floor and 6-[foot-]8,” North Carolina coach Roy Williams said. “He can do a lot more things offensively than he even realizes himself.”
Jackson is averaging 13.0 points and 4.3 rebounds in the NCAA tournament, which are slightly above his season averages of 12.2 points and 3.9 rebounds. He’s shooting the ball considerably better from 3-point range -- he's hit 28 percent overall, but has shot 6-of-13 (46.2 percent) in four NCAA games.
Sometimes playing in front of a home crowd can be a distraction. Ticket requests from family and friends, even well-wishers just wanting a moment of time can end up being more draining than uplifting. Williams said he wasn’t worried about it with Jackson.
"It's not going back home. It's, we're going to the Final Four to play basketball," Williams said. "We’re going to play in the Final Four and have a chance to win a national championship. He’s not going to have any more relatives there than anyone else because we can’t get the tickets.”