With 16:16 left in UConn’s Sweet 16 matchup against Arkansas, the Huskies were already up by 23 points. Tristen Newton got a little space off of an Adama Sanogo high-ball screen and threw up a 25-footer. But it softly carroms off the front of the rim.
Pause frame. Four Arkansas players are there to clean up the rebound, getting ready to fly back the other way.
Not if Andre Jackson had anything to say about it.
The athletic junior sprints in from the left baseline and contorts his body around the 6-6 Ricky Council while simultaneously ripping the offensive board out of the air. He then rifles a cross court-pass to a wide-open Hawkins who drills a three-pointer, all in the span of about two seconds. The Huskies stretched their lead to 26 points.
It’s hard to measure how much impact a play like this truly has on a team. In the box score, it’s three points, but in reality, it’s much more than that. Giving up a play like that is extremely deflating. You force a low-percentage shot and have multiple guys right there to secure the board, but you blinked twice and another long-range bomb is cutting through the net. All you can do is shake your head and shrug.
That’s what Jackson does. Against Gonzaga, his play at the end of a half, to intercept a pass possibly not intended for him and get it to Karaban for a three before the buzzer, is the kind of stuff that creates 4+ point swings and demoralizes opponents.
AJ’s offensive game still has a ways to go, but let’s face it. He’s never going to be heavily relied upon to score. He did need to improve his offensive game in order to be a more complete contributor on that end, and that’s exactly what he did.
Jackson came in as a 4-star recruit out of Amsterdam, NY (No. 35 ESPN, No. 53 247 Sports), who arrived as the most athletic guy on the floor in most games, pretty much from Day One. The term “built in a lab” gets thrown around sometimes to describe elite athletes, and while that’s true about Jackson, he also has a competitive streak that has him hustling to turn a 23-point lead into a 26-point lead.
Early in his career, on-court production was hard to come by. Entering college during a pandemic-impacted year definitely didn’t do him any favors, and a mid-season broken wrist as a freshman further set him back. He finished out that season with 2.7 points and 2.9 rebounds while shooting 41 percent from the field and 11 percent from three in 16 minutes of game action. UConn made the NCAA tournament but lost to Maryland.
Jackson had a better sophomore season. He averaged 30 minutes per game in 32 starts and doubled his rebounding and assist averages while getting up to 6.8 PPG and also making a name for himself as a defender. Still, UConn lost in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.
Jackson went back to the lab, with the help of his coaching staff.
The three-point stroke improved dramatically, as did his rebounding numbers. Jackson also developed into a defensive ace, utilizing his wingspan and anticipation to turn defense into offense. On top of his skillset, he exudes the toughness and passion for the game that Hurley loves to see in his players, one of the reasons he was named a captain heading into this year.
The junior year got off to a hot start for Jackson and his running mates: 14 straight wins to start, rising up to No. 2 in the AP poll, UConn’s highest rank in over 12 years. Jackson isn’t scoring a ton of points, but he’s second on the team in rebounds, second in assists, and first in steals through December. Given how many guys are shooting the leather off the ball, they simply don’t need him to be a primary offensive producer.
Hurley’s strategy this year has been “getting that ball in his hands and getting him to attack the paint. That’s a guy that we need living in the paint with the ball, creating offense. Pushing that ball in transition. Obviously, he’ll need to continue to work on his perimeter shot,” he said.
Then New Year's Day rolls around and UConn has its first Big East road test. Xavier Sean Miller decided to throw a wrinkle at UConn. Andre’s defender sags by about 8-10 feet, virtually begging him to shoot from distance. And he did. Twelve times. UConn took its first loss of the season that day but to Andre’s credit, he still hit four from deep and was assuredly not the reason that the Huskies lost that one.
This did, however, seem to cause a lightbulb to go off in all of UConn’s opposing coaches from there on out, because it seems as though everyone started copying Miller, and it was working. Andre struggled with his decision-making and reverted back to some bad old habits, like the 12-foot running floater which did not have a high success rate. While he was still a terror defensively, this caused his confidence on the offensive end to wane and started negatively impacting UConn’s overall efficiency and effectiveness. UConn lost six of eight, and Dan Hurley was looking for answers, fast.
They devised a game plan centered around quick hitters, getting Andre to specific spots on the floor, and getting the ball to his teammates in positions to score. One that was particularly effective has been the dribble hand-off to screen action. Jackson will sprint to a shooter camping on the three-point line and hand the ball off while shielding his teammate’s defender so they can get a cleaner look.
With Andre’s defender camped in the paint, all he can do is watch as the Huskies bury another three. Having a teammate that shoots 40% from three with arguably has the quickest release in the country obviously helps, but that’s only part of the equation. Jackson’s execution of this has been on-point.
It’s now almost April. The Huskies are still playing, and at an extremely high level, with Jackson leading the charge with his high-IQ play and leadership. In their 28-point drubbing of Gonzaga Jackson had one of his best games ever, falling just short of becoming the ninth player in NCAA tournament history to notch a triple-double.
He finished with eight points, nine rebounds, and ten assists. Mark Few decided to use the aforementioned Miller method and have Drew Timme sag on Jackson. Pure disrespect once again, but Jackson was prepared. He responded with incredible patience letting the off-ball action develop until he ultimately found the open man time and time again like a quarterback running the option. His own off-ball movement was also phenomenal, cutting to the basketball and also patiently sitting down in the open spots created by the defense when they sent doubles at Adama Sanogo.
Dan Hurley was asked about the defensive scheme post-game.
“We’ve figured that out. That doesn’t work anymore. It took me too long to get Andre in the places where he could still be one of the biggest impact players. Since we’ve unlocked that code, he’s been unbelievable.”
Jackson agrees, even preferring it now, “I’ve learned how to really counter whatever they do. I like it.”
Jackson’s development from a freshman with all the potential in the world to a catalyst on a powerhouse Final Four team that is an analytical monster is a great sign for this UConn program. It also spotlights the player-coach dynamic that makes college basketball that much more fun to follow. Dan Hurley has the utmost confidence in his team right now, especially Jackson, and for good reason.
If Jackson continues to play at this level, he won’t only bring a fifth men’s basketball national championship to Storrs, but will also likely hear his name called in the first round of the NBA Draft some day.