Jackson plays key role in turnaround

SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- Notre Dame point guard Tory Jackson wrestled the rebound away from Seton Hall's 6-foot-6 forward Jeff Robinson, sending the ball bouncing toward midcourt and out of bounds.

Jackson chased after it, though, dove and batted the ball right into the hands of Luke Harangody for an easy layup and a three-point play after he was fouled. Jackson got up and let out a yell at midcourt to celebrate.

It was typical Jackson, doing the gritty work while a teammate gets the glory. Despite leading the Big East in assists for the third time -- only former Syracuse standout Sherman Douglas had done it until now -- the 5-foot-11 Jackson has never been made Big East's all-conference team. Not even an honorable mention.

"He's always been a guy who has not gotten the attention he deserves," Notre Dame coach Mike Brey said. "What's been so great is it's never bothered him. He's just cared about his team winning and leading. I think that's what makes him a winner."

Jackson played a key role in helping the Irish win six of their last seven to finish 23-11 and earn a sixth seed in the NCAA tournament against Old Dominion (26-8) Thursday in New Orleans. While everyone has accepted the slowdown offense Brey turned to when leading scorer Harangody went down with a knee injury on Feb. 11 and missed five games, Jackson has been the one setting the pace.

"The way Tory controls the game, he knows when to push the ball and when to slow it down and burn it," Harangody said. "He's done a great job."

The Irish, who have been known for 10 seasons under Brey as an up-tempo team that didn't emphasize defense, were averaging 79.2 points and 57.8 shots a game before Brey decided to switch to a more deliberate offense. The Irish did so seamlessly in a double-overtime loss at Louisville.

Since making the switch, the Irish are averaging 65.6 points and 49.6 shots a game and not only earned an NCAA berth, but a sixth seed.

"To play from off the map two-and-a-half weeks ago and really just an afterthought, to a six seed has got to be a little bit unprecedented in the history of finishes," Brey said. "I love the momentum we have heading into this tournament."

The change of speed wasn't hard for Jackson, who is 14th in the nation in assist-turnover ratio and 31st in assists at 5.3 a game. He said even though he's handling the ball more, it makes his job easier.

"It just helps us slow down and see the game a lot better," Jackson said. "It gets us great possessions every time."

Jackson, a senior from Saginaw, Mich., has played in and won more games than anyone in Notre Dame history. Brey calls Jackson the voice of the team, frequently saying his guard could run practice on his own without the coach. Jackson does some coaching before games as well.

"He's emphasizing things we talked about in the scouting report. He's verbalizing things we talked about the two previous days of practice. He's getting the guys individually," Brey said. "He's got a chatter in there that is extremely constructive."

Harangody describes Jackson as the team's glue.

"He's an energy guy. He brings it every time whether in practice or before a game. He's a guy keeping guys' attitudes up," Harangody said.

Jackson managed to stay positive when the Irish lost four of five games in January and appeared to be heading toward the same midseason slump that led to the previous season falling apart, when the Irish lost seven straight. He said he'd return to his apartment after some losses and just stare at the wall.

"I'm a sore loser. I may go home and hate everybody. But the next day I'm going to come back smiling, come back putting in more work and trying to figure out ways to win," he said.

Jackson finally got some recognition at the end of the season when he received the league's Sportsmanship Award and was named to the Big East all-tournament team. Jackson said being overlooked doesn't bother him, although he said it probably would have when he was younger and more brash.

He's more mature now and more humble. Besides, as the second youngest of 14 children, he's used to sharing the limelight. He's focused on one thing.

"If I'm doing what it takes to win, eventually in the end it will show," Jackson said. "Point guard is getting every one else involved."