Philly buddies excel for the Orange
Wed, 12 Jan 2011 16:42:36 GMT —
Rick Jackson snares the rebound of a missed 3-pointer by Syracuse freshman Dion Waiters, spins along the baseline under the basket and flips an underhanded pass out to Scoop Jardine on the wing.
Swish! Another 3 for the Orange.
Seconds later, 6-foot-8 Notre Dame forward Tyrone Nash goes up for a point-blank shot in the lane, the 6-9 Jackson swats it away, and Jardine leads the Orange back on a fast break.
Just another day on the hardwood for Jackson and Jardine. The buddies from Neumann-Goretti High School in Philadelphia envisioned it this way. Without them, the Orange likely wouldn't be on anybody's radar.
"We dreamed about coming to a top program and just being the go-to guys," said Jackson, who's averaging 11.9 rebounds, tops in the Big East and tied for fourth nationally. "We wasn't looking to be one-and-done-type guys. We wanted to come and get our degrees and all that."
Syracuse (16-0, 3-0 Big East), ranked fourth nationally, is off to its second-best start in Jim Boeheim's 35 seasons as head coach. The Orange, who play at St. John's on Wednesday night, are within three wins of matching the school record set in 1999-2000.
"I don't know how good we are as of right now," said Jardine, the starter at point guard this season. He's second on the team in scoring at 13.8 points per game and tops with 96 assists and 29 steals. "I just know that we keep getting better, and that's what you want."
Carl Arrigale has watched from afar and figures Jackson and Jardine are right on track.
"They've seen it all, done it all," said Arrigale, their coach at Neumann-Goretti. "It was just a matter of where they fit, what coach thought of them. Did I think they would be instant stars as freshmen? Maybe not. But did I know that there was going to be no way you were going to be able to keep them off the floor? Yeah, I knew that because that's what they wanted to do."
Jackson, the lone senior, has been Boeheim's rock the entire season, easily switching from power forward to center as needed when raw freshman centers Fab Melo and Baye Moussa Keita have struggled. Jackson is third on the team in scoring, averaging 13.3 points, third in assists with 43, and leads with 36 blocks.
"When I go out there, I'm not looking to score this amount of points or try to take this amount of shots. I just let the game come to me," Jackson said. "That's the only way that you can play and be successful. If I see somebody open, I've got confidence in my teammates. I'm going to give them the ball and they're going to make shots."
It's no coincidence that Jackson and Jardine share more than one common bond. Both have reached a higher level of play because they've lost weight and transformed their bodies.
Jardine, who started 10 games as a freshman in 2008-09, was redshirted the following season while recovering from a stress fracture in his left leg caused in part by carrying too much weight on his 6-2 frame. He dropped around 15 pounds and returned with a vengeance last season, averaging nine points and 4.3 assists despite not starting one game.
"All that impact and I was carrying that weight. I wasn't used to it," Jardine said. "Coach always got on the both of us - if we got our weight down, we would become better basketball players. I was the only one in denial. Once I came to see that I needed it, it made me a better basketball player."
Jackson followed suit after the Orange lost to Butler in the NCAA tournament in the round of 16 last spring. After combining all season with hulking senior center Arinze Onuaku to form an imposing wall in the paint, Jackson's stamina was tested to its limits after Onuaku was hurt in the Big East tournament at Madison Square Garden and was unable to play again.
"Coach told me right after the game," said Jackson, who had only four points and nine rebounds in 35 minutes against Butler. "He said, 'We need you to be in top shape. We need you to lose weight because next year we're going to really depend on you. We're going to need you to just go after every rebound and just keep going because Arinze's gone now. You're going to have to be that person in there.' "
Staring at his final season in college, Jackson obliged. He stopped eating candy, cakes chips, and fast food and dropped 25 pounds in the offseason.
"Dieting was really all on me, just watching what I eat," Jackson said. "Before, I would eat anything."
Jackson is averaging a team-high 33.7 minutes and his work on the boards has improved substantially. Last year, he averaged one rebound every 3.7 minutes and this year he's cut that to one every 2.8 minutes (190 in 539 minutes).
"You saw when Arinze got hurt and he had to take on a bigger role in the NCAA tournament, he couldn't handle it," Arrigale said. "It was a lot for him. Maybe when coach said, 'You're our guy and I'm hanging my hat on you and we need you' was all he needed."
Jackson also has a team-high nine double-doubles. That's two more than he had in his first three seasons combined.
"He can be explosive. He can move well," said Ryan Cabiles, Syracuse's director of strength and conditioning. "A lot of times when athletes go through those transformations, that's the end result. A lot of it has to do with him taking care of himself on a consistent basis."
At the midpoint of the season, Jackson is on the verge of becoming just the fifth player in an elite group at Syracuse. Barring injury, he'll join Roosevelt Bouie, Rony Seikaly, Derrick Coleman and John Wallace as the only players to register 1,000 points, 800 rebounds and 200 blocks.
"I'm not worried about the points," said Jackson, who has 997 points, 760 rebounds and 209 blocks in his Syracuse career. "I really just worry about the rebounds.
"Right now, I'm on a mission. I just want to be the top rebounder in the Big East, the top rebounder in the nation," he said. "That's just something I want to do for myself, and I think I'm on a great pace right now for that. I've just got to keep it going."