No. 9 North Carolina’s trip to Chestnut Hill to play ACC cellar dweller Boston College was expected to be a routine one, with Roy Williams’ team taking care of business and heading back home. The game was anything but routine, beginning with Williams’ decision to start a completely different front court from the one that struggled in a loss at Notre Dame Saturday night.
Add in Williams having to leave the sidelines after collapsing in the second half and the Tar Heels’ struggles throughout the night against Jim Christian’s Eagles, and North Carolina was in position to suffer a stunning setback. Yet in the end North Carolina won 68-65, thanks to a timely four-point play from Marcus Paige and 20 points from sophomore forward Justin Jackson.
Due to his recent shooting slump Paige has been the most often discussed Tar Heel of late, but given his overall track record there were few who thought he wouldn’t find a way to turn things around. He is North Carolina’s best player, and ultimately how far the Tar Heels go this spring will depend upon how well Paige plays. But he can’t do it all alone, and in the case of Jackson the Tar Heels have a gifted wing capable of making plays offensively…when he chooses to do so.
Against Boston College an aggression that hasn’t been seen from Jackson on a consistent basis this season, since a stretch in late November of three straight games of 20 points or more, was present. He attacked the Boston College defense on a night in which North Carolina’s perimeter shots once again missed the mark (5-for-16 3PT), scoring 20 points on 9-for-11 shooting from the field. The benching seemingly lit a fire under Jackson, giving North Carolina a much-needed boost in a game that turned out to be far more difficult than many expected.
The question now is what Jackson does to build on this performance. The skill is there, but this is a matter of having the mindset needed to make plays without being prodded. Brice Johnson has struggled with similar issues throughout his career, but he put forth the best basketball of his career earlier this season with Kennedy Meeks out of the lineup.
North Carolina struggled for much of the night, even before Williams had to leave the sidelines, and that cannot be glossed over. The Tar Heels have the talent needed to produce better performances than this, one that nearly led to them losing a game they were expected to win convincingly. But there is the positive of Jackson’s performance to take from it, as he looked to attack the Boston College defense consistently and experienced success in doing so.
The Tar Heels will face tougher competition in their remaining ACC games, and with that comes the need to have Jackson continue to play at this level. Tuesday night represents a step forward for Jackson, but how big of a step that is will be determined by what he does over the next month.