Saturday afternoon’s matchup against DePaul is the Orange’s last home game of the 2010-11 season, and it will be the Carrier Dome swan song for the team’s only senior, Rick Jackson. While his contributions this season have been well-chronicled, his reliability over his entire career on the Hill has been overlooked by many, in my opinion. In the time since Hakim Warrick left for the NBA in 2005 until Jackson’s arrival as a rotation regular in 2008, consistent post production was near-impossible to come by. The struggles of Terrence Roberts and Darryl Watkins were emblematic of the 2004 recruiting class; Donte Greene set up shop down low rarely, if ever, and while Arinze Onuaku was steady in his production, he remained shaky in stamina.
This season, Jackson has been as sure a thing as there’s been in the back of the zone since Warrick dunked everything from the low block and skied for rebounds he had no business getting. Rick’s steadiness has been more pronounced this season, as Baye Moussa Keita and Fab Melo have taken their lumps and DaShonte Riley hasn’t been a factor all season, rehabbing from surgery before the start of the campaign. Opposing coaches have made Jackson a focal point when planning their defensive schemes, which has left opportunities for his teammates to make bigger contributions, even if those opportunities haven’t been cashed 100 percent of the time.
Jackson came to Syracuse with his high-school teammate, Scoop Jardine, from Neuman-Goretti in Philadelphia (drink!). Scouts and college coaches liked his back-to-the-basket offensive game and fawned over his rebounding ability. The 10th-ranked center in the class of 2007, Jackson was ranked behind DePaul defector Mac Koshwal and South Florida big man Gus Gilchrist. Spurning offers from schools all over Philly, Jackson committed to SU fairly early in the recruiting process, in the fall of his junior year. Though Jackson and Jardine were rumored to be a packaged deal, an easy presumption to make, that wasn’t the case. Jardine gave his word to Mike Hopkins in September, and with Jackson still available, Big East coaches flocked to his games in a last-ditch effort to nab him. Soon after, Rick decided to follow his teammate to SU, rewarding the Orange’s deeper connection to the power forward.
His first year on the hill was spent platooning in a reserve role with Kristof Ongenaet behind Onuaku and occasionally spelling Greene. Averaging 12 minutes per game, Jackson didn’t have much responsibility aside from helping keep the team in games, but it was easy to see his potential when he played against weaker schools. As is the tendency for freshmen in the Big East, when league play rolled around, minutes became harder to come by. It was Ongenaet’s first season with Syracuse as well, but the Belgian had built collegiate experience playing juco ball, and that experience, coupled with his defensive intensity, endeared him to the coaching staff as Jackson adjusted to college life.
That portion of the depth chart carried over to the start of the following season, but after Donte Greene left for the pro ranks, a big scoring void was left in his wake. Ongenaet slid into the starting forward spot and Arinze Onuaku manned the middle, but Ongenaet struggled to contribute in replacing the lost offensive production. Eleven games into the season, Jim Boeheim pulled the string and replaced Ongenaet with Jackson for SU’s game at Memphis, where he helped the team win despite the loss of Eric Devendorf to suspension. In his recap, Brent Axe had the following to say about Jackson in his first career start:
Rick Jackson made his debut starting at power forward and responded with what was far and away his best game as an Orangeman. Jackson had 14 points, tying his career high, and was all over the place on the defensive end, making all kinds of hustle plays that won’t show up in a boxscore.
As it turns out, that last part can be used to describe nearly every game in Jackson’s career since, though these days, his hustle is louder in the box scores. Given 24 minutes per game in conference play his sophomore year, Jackson developed his post game as an inside threat alongside Onuaku, and on defense, showed all the ability that Ongenaet displayed and then some. Still gaining his footing, Jackson remained limited against more experienced post players like DeJuan Blair, Hasheem Thabeet and Louisville’s athletic tandem of Earl Clark and Terrence Williams. He was clearly overmatched by an absolute beast in Blake Griffin in the Sweet Sixteen. However, in posting four double-doubles in the season, including one in the first round of the NCAA Tournament, the coaching staff’s vision of Jackson in a bigger role started to materialize. Given twice the playing time from his freshman year, his production increased commensurately, jumping from 3.7 points per game to 8.3.
As the incumbent in 2009-10, and with Ongenaet no longer there to back him up, Jackson’s role as a complementary player grew, but signs emerged that he could be much more than that. His coming-out party came in Tampa, when he registered a career-high 21 points on a 9-13 line from the floor to go with 13 rebounds as the Orange beat Florida for the second straight year. Onuaku appeared to be playing on borrowed time with leg troubles plaguing his ability to get up and down the court and elevate for rebounds. As a result, Jackson and Wes Johnson combined to haul in nearly six boards per game, with Jackson leading the team at 7.1 per contest. In a fast-paced battle with Providence, he notched another career-high performance with 28 points, and followed it up with a huge game against Villanova in front of a record Dome crowd. In the conference tournament, Onuaku’s season ended early when Greg Monroe collided with the Orange big man. Boeheim played things close to the vest when it came to disclosing the extent Onuaku’s injury, but the truth was that it was bad enough that he would have to rely heavily on Jackson in the NCAA Tournament. Jackson helped carry the load on defense, averaging nine rebounds in three tournament games, but as the lone post threat on offense, opposing teams could give him more attention without worrying about getting burned by Kris Joseph and DaShonte Riley, who were also thrusted into elevated roles.
After the tournament loss to Butler, Boeheim ordered Rick Jackson to drop some weight over the summer in anticipation of a big senior year. Fab Melo and Baye Moussa Keita would be on the way, and DaShonte Riley would be a sophomore, but all three carried different shortcomings. For Melo, it was a lack of high school development, having only played the game for a few years. For Keita, it was strength, and for Riley, a foot problem that would eventually require surgery to end the season before it even started. Last fall, Jackson showed up to campus 25 pounds slimmer, and through 30 games, his conditioning program has enabled him to play over 35 minutes per game while averaging a double-double. Furthermore, only three times this season has Jackson failed to crack double figures in both scoring and rebounding. Against Detroit, he held a clinic, pulling down 22 rebounds. He got busy in Tampa once again with a season-high 21 points and 12 boards. He’s also showcased an ability to alter shots – on February 19, he blocked seven Rutgers attempts and had six swats in the team’s biggest win of the season so far, against Notre Dame. Steady from under the basket, his 59.1% shooting percentage rivals that of AO. Put it all together and you have a legit all-conference post man.
Now in the home stretch of the season, it’s become clear that as Rick Jackson goes, so go the Orange. In the team’s current four-game win streak, Jackson has averaged 14.5 points and 8.3 rebounds. In SU’s last three losses, though, he’s averaged just 8.3 points and 6.3 boards. In Jackson’s first three seasons, he was never asked to be the focal point from a scoring standpoint, but in an up-and-down season, he’s been the Orange’s only consistent option. It’s fitting, then, that Rick will be the lone senior honored this weekend.