Despite the myriad of questions that branded the Buckeyes entering this season, two names stood out as stalwarts in Jae’Sean Tate and Keita Bates-Diop. The duo would be the workhorses, carrying the load and paving the way for a new staff and young roster in rebuild… but who else?
Though Kam Williams flirted with the NBA, and Kaleb Wesson brought in top level prep accolades, the player to claim third billing behind Tate and Bates-Diop remained out of focus.
An unlikely candidate has risen to the surface. Not Williams or Wesson, not a freshman in Kyle Young or Musa Jallow, not even a returning big man in Micah Potter. Junior point guard C.J. Jackson, at times quietly and uproariously at others, has asserted himself as a key to Ohio State continuing to squash doubts.
For Jackson, though, the ride has been bumpy.
A day one starter, Jackson entered this season as the leader in a diminished unit of ball handlers. Graduate transfer Andrew Dakich came over from Michigan and projected to eat minutes in spells, but the depth chart at point guard saw little outside of Jackson. The growing pains were felt early.
In a win over Radford, the junior coughed up seven turnovers in what proved to be not an aberration, but a preview of things to come. Another seven giveaways versus Butler preceded a five-turnover effort against Clemson, and coach Chris Holtmann’s hand was effectively forced.
Jackson was relegated to the bench, prompting questions around the reasoning. Was it more than a mere lineup shake up? Holtmann did not mince words with his thoughts.
“No, I’m trying to send a message,” Holtmann said after Ohio State’s win over Michigan. “He’s really important for us. Players have an opportunity to respond the right way in those moments.”
So far, responding the right way is exactly what Jackson has done. Since his benching, Jackson has reassumed the starting role and dropped his per game turnover average from 3.5 to two, and did not record more than three in a game for the month of December.
The biggest adjustment for Jackson has been an introspective approach, understanding that the smart pass is ultimately more productive than the flashy dime.
“Trying to make the perfect play, to play mistake free, which is kind of when you start making mistakes,” Jackson said of his maturation. “I just kind of took a step back, just let everything happen, and tried to enjoy myself more.”
Turnover improvement aside, Jackson is starting to turn heads with his penchant for scoring the basketball as well.
Shooting over 43 percent from deep would be impressive enough, but Jackson’s knack for picking and choosing the right moment to barrel toward the hoop and complete a circus finish has really set him apart.
Against North Carolina, as Bates-Diop searched for his rhythm, Jackson dazzled. The guard scored the first 11 points for the Buckeyes, hitting from deep and attacking the basket with poise. Jackson finished with 19, marking his 11th game reaching double figures. On the season, he is averaging 13.6 points a game, good for second on the team.
“He’s been able to play really effectively for us for most of the year,” Holtmann said after the loss to North Carolina. “I was pleased with his ability to defend his position and to make open shots. We desperately need that. He steadied us a little bit when we were down a couple of guys.”
With news of yet another Jae’Sean Tate shoulder injury, Jackson may be relied upon to steady the Buckeyes once again as the team heads into conference play. If you ask Holtmann, he is more than up for the task.
“He’s really playing with a lot of confidence,” Holtmann said. “He’s playing aggressively, he’s playing free, and he’s making an impact on both ends.”