Justin Jackson played the best game of his career Wednesday night, but his polished consistency over the last month has changed the expectations of UC basketball this season.
CINCINNATI -- The evolution of Justin Jackson has been well-publicized. Through the early portion of the season his offensive game took strides. His energy funneled into useful mediums rather than wasteful moments. As a senior he'd grown into a steady complement to Sean Kilpatrick.
Despite all his improvements and discussion of reaching potential, few then could have envisioned what's happening to his game now.
He spins in the post with precision. He powers to the bucket and finishes. He passes better than any player on the Bearcats when in the low post.
The blocked shot, the dive into the stands and game defined by reckless abandon still exist. But not only is Jackson transforming from athlete to basketball player, he's turning into one that can carry the Bearcats.
He did so Wednesday.
Jackson finished with 17 points, six rebounds, five blocks, five steals and three assists. The 16 deflections charted by the UC coaching staff is the most Mick Cronin can remember during his tenure.
"Justin Jackson was as good as you can possibly be today," Cronin said. "Probably on every phase of the game. Almost impossible to have a better stat line than he had, but forth a better effort than he put forth. He's playing like one of the best big men in the country right now."
When Kilpatrick shoots 3 of 12 from the field and 1 of 7 from 3-point range against a quality opponent that refuses to give up layups, the Bearcats are supposed to lose.
Only, Jackson wouldn't let them. During a 10-0 run in the first half he affected every possession offensively and defensively. He blocked shots, he dished to Troy Caupain for a wide open 3-pointer, he grabbed boards, he made a steal and pushed the break.
He's twice been named AAC Player of the Week and by far played his best college basketball Wednesday.
Hall of Fame coach Larry Brown compared Jackson to Ben Wallace prior to the game and gave him credit for single-handedly willing the Bearcats to halftime lead after it.
Many questioned if Jackson could be a second option for Kilpatrick before the season, now this attack hums when the offense runs through him in the post.
Polished was never a word associated with Jackson the last three seasons, but now that it is his raw athleticism that left so many in awe is leaving opponents in shambles in the paint.
It all begins with his post moves. He's able to spin off to create easy layups. His explosive first step created an easy dunk against a center he gave up three inches to.
"He's got great quickness which he's always had," Cronin said of the growth of his post game. "The other thing is his added strength. His understanding, he's been extremely coachable and understanding where the help is to let us get the floor spaced and then attack and read whether he should pass it or finish. I'm Big believer added strength really helped his balance as a finisher, which has helped his confidence."
That confidence is altering the season expectations for UC basketball one game at a time.
"I saw it with Kenyon (Martin) his senior year, now it becomes a snowball effect," Cronin said. "Now he's so confident he believes nobody can guard him in the low post."
He's even delivered gold in the postgame press conference. When asked how tough the game was on his body on a night he had to leave once after knocking knees and repeatedly fell hard to the ground. He with a serious, straight face uttered a one-liner.
"I'm a machine," he said.
Indeed. And one that's powering UC basketball and himself into the national conversation.