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Men’s basketball: C.J. Jackson responding to Chris Holtmann’s message with improved play off the bench

Ohio State junior guard C.J. Jackson (3) brings the ball down the court in the first half in the game against Clemson on Nov. 29. Ohio State lost 79-65. Credit: Jack Westerheide | Photo Editor

C.J. Jackson never expected to be the primary ball handler in such a short time at Ohio State. The junior probably didn’t expect to be benched 10 games into his first season as a starting point guard either.

And with Jackson coming off the bench, the Buckeyes (7-3, 2-0) have pulled off two significant early conference victories against Wisconsin and Michigan.

Jackson wasn’t meeting the demands through the team’s first eight games. His 23 percent turnover rate was unacceptable for a starting point guard in a Power Five conference, and the Ohio State offense wasn’t getting it done against top quality opponents. Holtmann moved Jackson to the bench and started senior forward Jae’Sean Tate at point guard.

When asked Monday following a 20-point comeback against Michigan if benching Jackson was done to send a message, without explicitly saying it, head coach Chris Holtmann’s answer was yes. It was done to send a message.

That’s life as a point guard under Holtmann, who has said in the past it’s probably no fun for a point guard to play for him.

But Holtmann’s message to Jackson was simple: stay poised and be a leader on and off the court.

Since coming off the bench, Jackson has been incredibly efficient. He has turned the ball over just three times, following games of seven and five turnovers in consecutive losses to Butler and Clemson. Jackson scored 10 off the bench against Wisconsin and 17 against Michigan, including seven free-throws in the final three minutes of a nine-point victory.

Message received.

“I guess you could say [I was pushing myself too much], like trying to make the perfect play and playing mistake free, which is when you start making mistakes,” Jackson said Friday. “I guess you could say that’s where I was at before.”

Jackson entered the game off the bench for the majority of last year, then started the final six games. However, this year, he’s the guy. There can’t be any letdown from Jackson. For a team short at the guard position, with the backup being graduate transfer Andrew Dakich — who has a turnover rate near 40 percent — Jackson has to be a consistent point guard who won’t turn the ball over.

Tate has filled in nicely at the point guard position, but it’s not his natural spot. He’s arguably Ohio State’s best option for taking a player one-on-one at the end of the shot clock, but he’s not a true point guard and isn’t a strong-enough shooter to be a combo guard.

Jackson’s the natural point guard. But for the time being, it’s Tate’s role. And it’s working, with Jackson, ironically, providing some insight to Tate.

“Kind of what my issue was, I was just telling him to make the simple plays,” Jackson said. “You don’t have to make the home run plays, things like that.”

Jackson said coming off the bench allows him to examine the pace of play and play at that level when he enters the game, instead of adjusting to it on the fly when he starts.

Holtmann didn’t rule out starting Jackson at noon Saturday against William & Mary, but acknowledged the guard’s improved play since moving out of the starting lineup.

“I think he knows that his minutes will be pretty consistent as long as he can continue to try to do what we’re asking him to do in terms of limiting his turnovers,” Holtmann said. “It’s nice to be able to have him or at least a guy that can give you some scoring punch off the bench.”

When making the jump from the junior-college level to Division I, Jackson didn’t expect such a significant role entering his second year in Columbus. Now that the Buckeyes have some momentum, his role is that much more vital for them to sustain any success.

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