ATLANTA – College basketball is all about transition, both on the court and on the roster. With the Baylor Bears advancing to only their second Elite Eight since 1950, most of the Baylor Bears are on the verge of uncharted territory.
Most, but not all.
Baylor fell to Duke in the Elite Eight in 2010. That season, Quincy Acy was part of a talented but overmatched Bears squad. Perry Jones III was still in high school. And point guard Pierre Jackson was in Idaho putting the pieces in place for a championship run of his own, one that Baylor fans hope will help him during Sunday's South Regional final against Kentucky.
Before transferring to Baylor last summer, Jackson led his junior college team at the College of Southern Idaho to a NJCAA championship. Along the way, he racked up a number of awards, including NJCCA Division I player of the year. And he fought through a debilitating elbow injury, what he now calls "a blessing in disguise," suffered the summer before his freshman year, to develop into one of the nation's premier point guards.
"I wasn't able to shoot my freshman year, so [I was] able to facilitate and be more of a point guard," Jackson said Saturday afternoon. "I couldn't shoot, so I had to get back in the gym to get my jumper right. It helped a lot. I think I have the best of both worlds now, being able to pass and shoot."
He blossomed into the kind of fully developed point guard that gets major-college coaches thinking dangerous thoughts, such as thoughts of deep runs in March.
"Winning a championship in junior college, or at any level, is tough," Baylor coach Scott Drew told a Waco, Texas, newspaper just before the tournament began. "That experience is definitely going to help him. But the magnitude of the NCAA tournament will be a first for him. … In junior college, you're not getting police escorts to arenas [for team buses] and dealing with the same level of off-court distractions. But at the end of the day, winners want to win. And Pierre's a winner. Pierre plays his best basketball the better the opponent."
Three years ago, it didn't look as if the Elite Eight was anywhere in Jackson's future, outside of a TV set. He had spent his youth learning to play basketball at a Boys & Girls Club in Las Vegas, and while he led the state of Nevada in assists as a senior at Desert Pine High, his grades forced him to go the juco route. Then came the elbow injury, suffered during a pickup game. He couldn't even extend his elbow his entire freshman season.
But it's amazing what a championship, paced by a 24-points-per-game average in the NJCAA tournament, will do for your future prospects. Jackson visited Baylor and found himself in the middle of an open-gym session that turned into a highlight factory.
"I remember one play, Perry went back door and I passed it to him and he did like the craziest dunk ever," Jackson said. "I got really excited. I was like, 'Whoa,' and I got hyped and stuff. Everybody was looking at me like, 'What are you getting excited for?' like they're used to it. And I was like, 'I'm not used to this. I've never seen a 6-10 dude jump that high.'
"It was great. That just made me feel like this is a place where I need to go."
Jackson did his part to leave others impressed.
"When I saw some film on him, I was like, 'Oh, yeah, we've got to get him,' " Acy said. "In the open gym, I was even more impressed with him. We did put up some dunks for him. He was kind of in awe. He said he'd never seen anything like that before. He was like, 'Oh, my God, did you see that?' And we were like, 'That's normal.'
"Pierre's a great athlete himself. We saw some things from him where we were like, 'Oh, wow, he's going to impress some people.' "
He did just that, right from the start of the season. Jackson leads the Bears in scoring (13.6 ppg), minutes (30.6, tied with Jones), free-throw percentage (.819), steals (66) and, of course, assists (218). He also is a 42.0 percent shooter from beyond the arc.
Friday night against Xavier, Jackson carded a double-double, with 16 points and 10 assists in 36 minutes. He hit two key 3-pointers, one right before halftime to stop a run of 13 consecutive Xavier points and one with just under three minutes remaining to extend the Bears' lead to 65-54.
Jackson will need to play every bit as well as he did Friday if Baylor has a hope of getting past Kentucky. His teammates have total faith that he could be the difference. He already has made a huge difference, as Acy noted.
"We're in the postseason," he said. "Last season, we weren't."
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