CINCINNATI – This is not how the story is supposed to end for Altron Jackson.
The senior guard may pull the No. 11 jersey over his head for the final time when South Florida meets UAB tonight at 7 p.m. in the first round of the Conference USA Tournament.
“If we go in and play well and still believe that we can do it, then we can make some noise (at the C-USA Tourney),” Jackson said. “I’ve got to get them to believe that.”
Chances are Jackson envisioned playing his final game in a USF uniform in the second or third round of the NCAA Tournament. It should have been the culmination of four years of hard work, putting South Florida in the national spotlight and becoming the benchmark for future Bulls teams.
If only Jackson were in charge of writing the script.Jackson, to say the least, has not exactly had a storybook finish to a storied career. After coming off the bench and earning C-USA Sixth Man of the Year awards in his sophomore and junior seasons, Jackson suddenly found himself staring squarely into the bright glow of the spotlight as a senior.
“It’s tough (being) the focal point of everything,” Jackson said. “It’s on you and it’s hard, but you have to find ways to get by that.”And this was supposed to be the year Jackson and the Bulls atoned for last season’s unmet expectations.
This was supposed to be the year Jackson seized the conference by the throat, leading the Bulls into the NCAA Tournament for the first time in a decade. This was supposed to be the year Jackson and the Bulls pulled it together and won the big game.
Airball on all three counts.
“Each year we’ve had a lot of expectations,” Jackson said. “And we didn’t meet those expectations.”
That’s not to say the season has been a total wash for Jackson. After all, he set the C-USA record for career points, had a brilliant Senior Night and earned his third all-conference selection (second team).
But for all the accolades and accomplishments, the numeral that will stick out the most in people’s mind when they think of Jackson’s stay at South Florida is zero – the number of times the Bulls reached the Big Dance during his four years.
“(People will say) this and that, but those two guys (Jackson and B.B. Waldon) didn’t get it done,” Jackson said.
Jackson has found out this year that with the spotlight comes accountability. Waldon took a lot of heat for the Bulls’ shortcomings in years past, but with Jackson now the focal point, responsibility – at least in the public eye – has shifted toward Jackson.
“Everyone has an opinion of him and wants a piece of him,” coach Seth Greenberg said. “It’s human nature to have some effect on him. It’s been hard for him to handle.”
Waldon and Jackson will forever be linked, for better or worse. Waldon came to South Florida with messiah-like expectations heaped on his shoulders, while Jackson found a niche coming off the bench and playing a supporting role. The pair has been targeted for their inability to get South Florida to the next level.
“No matter what I say or what anybody else thinks, the finger will always get pointed at us two,” Jackson said.
While Jackson understands – and to a point accepts the criticism – he doesn’t necessarily find it equitable.
“I don’t think it’s fair,” he said. “But that’s just the way it is. When you’re in the spotlight, that’s part of the territory.”
Greenberg said Jackson has found it difficult to shift from the supporting cast to leading man in a season where the Bulls have failed to reach their goals (barring a miraculous four-game run through the C-USA Tourney) and must now hope for a bid to the National Invitational Tournament.
“Understand he went from a guy with very little notoriety to a guy that’s been placed on a national stage,” Greenberg said.
“That’s not easy to deal with. Has he dealt with it perfectly? No. This has been something he wasn’t prepared for.”
Throughout this season, Jackson’s infectious grin and unbridled enthusiasm have waned. Constant questions about unmet expectations and missed opportunities have taken their toll. But when the conversation turns back to hoops and what it would mean to him to get a shot at the NIT – even if it is only the NIT – as a senior, Jackson is suddenly the little kid playing basketball at the park in Sarasota.
“It’d be another chance to play basketball, the game that I love no matter what,” Jackson said.
“Just as long as I’ve got a uniform on and I’m still playing basketball, that’s what really counts right now.”
- Brandon Wright covers men’s basketball and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org