C.J. Jackson took the inbound with seven seconds left in double overtime. Ohio State had no timeouts left, and trailed Indiana by one, 78-77. The whole game had been back and forth, and Ohio State needed the win to lock up the number two seed in the Big Ten Tournament that would start less than a week later. Assembly Hall was as loud as it had been all game long, as the intelligent basketball crowd sensed the chance for the home team to finally put the win away after a Juwan Morgan layup on the previous possession.
With the crowd roaring, the clock ticking, and no star to take the final shot (Keita Bates-Diop was open, but had struggled from three all game long), Jackson looked off the Buckeye’s leading scorer, hesitated, and drained a three, right in Josh Newkirk’s face.
That play, in a strange way, almost felt like the passing of the torch from KBD to C.J. After a year of dominant play from Bates-Diop, Jackson took the last shot for himself, rather than passing off, which he spent the whole year doing. The then-junior guard was the leader of the team in that moment, and he couldn’t have picked a better time to rise to the occasion. Ohio State desperately needed him, and he delivered.
That moment, the game winning three, also felt like the arrival of a player that spent the past two seasons in Columbus being more potential than production. When Jackson came to Columbus in the class of 2016— by way of Eastern Florida State College, a JuCo in Cocoa, Fla.— he came as a dead-eye shooter, and someone that could handle the ball, but not a primary guard. He was expected to be a scorer, above all else, and to this point, we really haven’t seen that.
It’s not due to any fault of his own though. Jackson was one of just two point guards on the 2016-2017 team, and while he played significant minutes behind JaQuan Lyle, it was never really in the way that he had been used at his previous school. However, he proved to be a pretty good floor general, and last year— once again on a team strapped for point guards— with only recently transferred Andrew Dakich to back him up, he took the reins; because that’s what leaders do.
We did see glimpses of what Jackson was actually recruited by Ohio State to do last year though, as his three point shooting shot up from 32 percent in 2016 to 38 percent last year, and he added an extra seven points per game, from 5.6 to 12.6. It didn’t feel like it at times, but Jackson was actually the second-leading scorer on last year’s team, and while he wasn’t scoring with a ton of volume (although he did score at least 18 points in three of the final five games in 2017-18), he was almost always good for at least ten points.
That won’t slide this year though. Keita Bates-Diop, Jae’sean Tate, Kam Williams and Andrew Dakich— the four veteran leads of last season’s team— are all gone. C.J. Jackson is one of just three seniors, and five upperclassmen overall. There’s plenty of talent and potential on this year’s Buckeye men’s basketball team, but Jackson is one of only four proven commodities on this team; and that’s being generous. There are way more questions than answers about this roster, and Jackson needs to be the star this year, like KBD needed to be last year.
While Jackson needing to step up and lead the team is different from what was expected from the eventual Big Ten Player of the Year last year, there’s another huge difference on this team from last year’s. After giving Andrew Dakich— a walk-on at Michigan— significant playing time at point guard last year (and having him play shockingly well), Ohio State finally has depth and talent at the point guard position; something that they have struggled to find for years, going back to Aaron Craft and the one year with D’Angelo Russell. While Jackson will be the most important part of the depth at PG, he will be aided by a brand new face to the program.
There are a lot of similarities between C.J. Jackson and his new partner in the backcourt, Keyshawn Woods. Woods, a graduate transfer from Wake Forest, struggled at times to really fit in at his schools, transferring originally from Charlotte to Wake Forest in 2015 because he just didn’t fit with the 49ers. At Wake Forest he saw more playing time, starting 22 games in his first year, but he still never seemed completely comfortable. He contributed last year, but was generally brought in off the bench rather than as a starter.
Despite not being the focal point of his team, Woods still contributed about 12 points per game over the past two seasons, and proved to be both a capable scorer and a good floor general. He’s an excellent shooter, but had trouble showing that at times, as his three-point percentage dropped from 44 percent in 2016 to 37 percent last year. All of that sounds a lot like what Jackson has gone through, and that’s because honestly, they’re really similar players. They even grew up pretty close to each other, with Woods’ hometown of Gastonia being just 30 minutes from Jackson’s in Charlotte.
While they have plenty of similarities, Keyshawn is far from a copy of Jackson. He was easily one of the best guards on the grad transfer market for good reason. While he wasn’t really able to show it last season, he can put up 25 points on any night because he’s a natural scorer. He’s a competent leader, a confident scorer, and should be a calming force on a Buckeye team with so much youth.
Ohio State needs that. They’ve needed that for years now, and one of the biggest reasons for Ohio State’s success last season was the leadership of their veterans, especially Keita Bates-Diop, and C.J. Jackson.
With those guys on the floor, Ohio State never panicked, and was able to stage large comebacks against Michigan and Purdue because they stayed calm, avoided mistakes, and stuck to the gameplan. This season, Woods, Jackson, Andre Wesson, Micah Potter, and even Kaleb Wesson— despite being just a sophomore— must be ready to fill that leadership role. While we’re still not sure if the Wesson brothers or Potter are ready to take that step, it feels like a near guarantee that the Woods/Jackson backcourt will get the job done.
While their stories, and what they bring to Ohio State, can be told separately, Keyshawn Woods and C.J. Jackson are intertwined. Their ability to coexist on the court could make or break this season for Ohio State. Keyshawn will be better with a true scorer next to him in the backcourt, and C.J. will be better without the responsibility of leading the offense and taking the ball up the floor every play. For the first time in both players’ careers, they’re in the ideal spot to do what they were always supposed to do, but circumstances have made them unable to, for years now. The spotlight is on Ohio State’s veteran guards, and it’s time for them to put on a show.