Notre Dame's Jackson making strides

Notre Dame’s sophomore point guard Demetrius Jackson has made roadkill out of opposing guards trying to run their offense through him.

With uncanny anticipation skills and some of the fastest hands in the ACC, Jackson, a 6-1, 198-pound sophomore, leads the Fighting Irish in steals and is tied for the ACC lead and is fourth in the conference in steals per game. He’s a leading candidate to steal the show in Sunday's game at No. 15 North Carolina.

Point guards can thank Jackson’s older brother for their headaches and shrinking assist-to-turnover ratios.

“When I was younger, my older brother would make me only play defense in the driveway. No offense; it was all defense,” said Jackson, who sports a team-best 4.2 assists-to-turnover ratio in ACC play. “Coach [Mike Brey] motivated me to be a better defender, and me wanting to set the tempo and set the tone for our team defensively at the top of the key, just the will to want to do those things, definitely helped me out.”

Brey also motivated Jackson academically, when last season he took Jackson off the court until he improved his grades, a strategy the coach employed with center Zach Auguste this season and Jerian Grant last year.

Since his reinstatement two games later, Jackson has motivated himself on and off the court. This year, offensively, he’s upped his game; more than doubling last year’s 6.0 ppg, and increasing his shooting by almost seven points and three-point shooting by almost five points, while shooting over 75 percent from the foul line in better than 10 minutes a game more than last season.

“I learned so much last year,” Jackson said. “Decision-making as a guard, just how to take care of the ball. In our program we really value taking care of the ball. I learned a lot from [last season’s starting point guard and co-captain] Eric Atkins, from Jerian Grant, and from coaches, too.”

This season, Jackson has become one of the team’s leaders.

“He’s really matured for us, no question about it. He gives us great ball pressure. He’s also become a real good decision-maker with the ball. He’s become a better guard,” Brey said. “He’s leading, too! He talks in our huddles as much as Grant and [senior forward Pat] Connaughton. He’s got to be a candidate for most improved player in the league.”

Notre Dame is a candidate for the most improved team in the league. Heading into Sunday’s showdown with the Tar Heels, they’re 17-2, ranked eighth according to AP, ninth by USA Today/Coaches, and, at 5-1, are tied for second in the ACC. That’s up from last season, N.D.’s first in the ACC, when it finished 6-12 in the conference (tied for 11th) and 15-17 overall. It was Brey’s only losing season at South Bend (he’s in his 15th year) and the program’s first sub-.500 season since 1998-99.

Jackson is proud of how the team responded to the setback.

“I feel like last year really motivated us to work harder and push ourselves extra hard in the off-season,” he said. “We just realized how athletic the teams were, how well the teams would compete. We realized what’s going to work, what’s not going to work. We went in and made the adjustments.”

Those adjustments have put the Fighting Irish in a good position to return to the NCAA Tournament, something they missed last year for only the second time in eight years.

They also will participate in the Orlando Classic, an early season Thanksgiving Weekend tournament that will also include the likes of Alabama, Dayton, Iowa, Southern California, Wichita State and Xavier.

“I’m really excited to be able to go out and play against some great teams,” Jackson said of the trip to Disney World. “It’s an opportunity to go out and be in a great place with my teammates and really have the opportunity to get better.”

We’re enjoying the show.