‘Bad Joe’ Gone as Poise Brings Winning Formula

By Don Wade

The Conference USA Tournament came early this season. That, or Tigers guard Joe Jackson has his dates confused. After two roller coaster seasons that included winning the Most Valuable Player award in two straight league tournaments – a C-USA first – Jackson apparently has decided to flip the calendar forward.

After leading the Tigers to an 85-80 victory at Tennessee on Jan. 4 and scoring 20 points with 7 assists, 4 rebounds and 4 steals, Jackson was named the C-USA Player of the Week. But coach Josh Pastner and Jackson’s teammates take a longer view because Jackson has been playing at a heightened level for going on two months and his 13.8 points per game and 4.5 assists lead the team.

“We have total faith in everything he does,” Adonis Thomas said after Jackson scored 15 points in a Jan. 9 win (67-54) over East Carolina to give him 10 straight games scoring in double digits.

Yes, the old, erratic, Joe Jackson was on display in November in the Bahamas when he had 7 turnovers in the loss to Virginia Commonwealth and scored just 2 points in 7 pouty minutes in the loss to Minnesota. But for the most part, “Bad Joe” only makes cameo appearances.

There were a couple of “Bad Joe” moments against ECU when he drove into traffic and threw up no-chance shots. But those plays hardly defined his game. He finished 7-of-11 from the floor and hit two big pull-up jumpers late to put the game away.

“Poise,” Jackson said afterward, admitting he wanted the ball. “That’s my job.”

Joe Jackson’s play in a recent win over the University of Tennessee helped garner the University of Memphis junior Conference USA Player of the Week honors.

(Photo: Randy Sartin-USA TODAY Sports)

The job description has changed, however. A pure scorer at White Station High School, which recently retired Jackson’s jersey, he arrived at the University of Memphis with the mandate of having to play point guard because when you’re 6-1 and 171 pounds, well, that’s what you do. But after Jackson’s struggles early this season, Pastner moved Jackson to shooting guard and it proved the perfect jump-start. Over his last eight games, he’s shooting 57.8 percent (48-for-83)

“I’ve never really focused on that (point guard label),” Jackson said. “He put me in a position to succeed. I’ve just been in my groove – off the ball, with the ball. That’s any guard in the country doing well; they’re not restrained to just one position.”

Now, Jackson just plays. Yes, he runs the point. Yes, he plays the two guard. And you might think that playing both spots would give Jackson more to think about, not less. But that’s not how this works. The over-thinking, the stressing, that all came earlier and was the shadow Jackson could not shake.

“That’s the tale of my whole college career,” Jackson said. “Especially my first two years – just thinking too much and causing mental errors.”

Pastner believes other forces were in play as well.

“He’s not letting anything bother him from the outside,” Pastner said. “We can coach him hard and he’s not taking anything personal. He’s got a smile on his face and he’s not listening to people that he shouldn’t be listening to who haven’t coached or played at this level. In the past, and I think he’ll admit this, there were 900 voices in his ear and I think it played games and tricks with his mental approach, which is just normal. The maturation process has allowed him to filter some of that stuff.”

Jackson has a routine that includes watching more film and taking more shots. More telling, he has an ease about him.

“I think he felt tense toward the beginning of the year,” said freshman Shaq Goodwin. “Now’s he’s more vocal, more of a leader.”

More confident.

“Confident like (in) the conference tournament,” Jackson said, adding, “I feel a little better, to tell the truth. … You gotta go through growing pains. I’ve stayed working hard on my game. I haven’t changed. It’s all work. You reap what you sow.”