KANSAS CITY, Mo. – Some folks wear their hearts on their sleeve. Donovan Jackson wears his on his shoes.
Jackson’s shoes are eye-catching because each is a different color. But the footwear is also a message board for his feelings – “everything I do is for you,” “2-17-18,” “I love you” and “RIP, Dad.”
On the night of Feb. 17, after the Cyclones had lost by 12 at Kansas State, Jackson got That Call. His father Donald had died at the age of 52 in Milwaukee. A senior season that was already slipping deeper into sub-.500 territory became a time of grief. Jackson, though, only missed Iowa State’s game at West Virginia on Feb. 24 – the day of his dad’s funeral.
Jackson, the team’s only senior who plays significant minutes, had 27 points in an 89-83 loss to TCU in the first game after his father’s death. On an emotional Senior Night in Hilton Coliseum, Jackson was playing just a few days after his father’s funeral. He scored 17 in a loss to Oklahoma State.
“I am so proud that my dad got to see me fulfill my dream here,” Jackson told the Cyclones fans after his senior ceremony.
Jackson’s college career and Iowa State’s season ended with Wednesday night’s 68-64 loss to Texas in the first round of the Big 12 tournament. After the Cyclones built a 10-point lead in the first half and the Longhorns countered to take a nine-point lead early in the second half, the final 15 minutes was a tossup.
“Very angry. Very angry,” Jackson said after the game. “Just the outcome of how it ended.”
Jackson finished with eight points and eight assists. His driving layup and then a nifty assist that led to an ISU basket to beat the shot clock pulled the Cyclones within 64-62 with 2:12 to play. But as happened too often during the Cyclones’ (13-18) seven-game losing streak to end the season, they made the key mistake at the wrong time.
“Bottom line about the whole season, it’s unacceptable,” coach Steve Prohm said. “It’s sickening. We’ve got to get to work. We’ve got to understand what we’ve got to do to get better. At the end of the day, I just wasn’t able to get the total, everybody playing the right way for the right reasons for 40 minutes. That’s the toughest thing to say.”
Iowa State fans form a special bond with the basketball players. They pack Hilton, regardless of the team’s record. In the small college town of Ames, the citizens feel like they know the players. That family feeling has helped Jackson cope over the past few weeks.
“This has been very tough because everything has been on me and my brother,” Jackson said. “It’s difficult to focus on playing basketball. It’s always in the back of my head. There are times during games when I’m thinking about it. It’s not gonna go away.”
While the two to three hours of warm ups and games serves as somewhat of a distraction, reality revisits as soon as Jackson walks in the locker room. And those post-game phone chats when he and his dad would dissect the game are no more.
Sophomore forward Solomon Young, whose mother has had an ongoing fight with breast cancer, understands the kind of anguish Jackson is feeling.
“Especially how this season has gone, not going like we’ve wanted, it’s only in the back of your mind about what your family is going through,” he said. “It’s hard to escape. You try to focus on the game but after it’s over and the adrenaline leaves, it’s on your mind again. You just pray and stay strong.”
Jackson not only has a place in the hearts of Iowa State fans, he’ll likely never pay for a meal in Ames because he hit The Shot.
Kansas is The Evil Empire to Cyclones fans and beating the Jayhawks is a special occasion. Last season, Iowa State ended KU’s 51-game winning streak in Allen Fieldhouse with a 92-89 overtime victory. Jackson’s three from the right corner was the clinching shot. The fact that the Cyclones could end a meaningful Kansas record means as much as an NCAA Tournament victory.
The loss to Texas ended hopes of extending the school-record streak of six consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances. Jackson is this season’s bridge to the departed players who made that success possible. First-year players like Lindell Wigginton and Cameron Lard will be counted on to make sure next season isn’t like this season.
“My big thing is, I want to set these guys up for next year and have them understand what it takes to actually win in the Big 12 because it takes a lot,” Jackson said. “It takes a lot of focus and dedication. This is the perfect stage to try and get some wins and set it straight. It’s bigger than me. Monte’ Morris and Naz Mitrou-Long, they paved the way for me. They taught me all the ins and outs and stuff like that. My job right now, I’m a senior, is to pass everything I know down to these guys.”
Jackson, a 6-2 senior, was a four-star recruit out of Iowa Western Community College. He made the most of his two seasons at Iowa State during his senior night speech, he said, “I lived in 23 different houses. I grew up in poverty. I never thought this would be the place I ended up.”
Good fortune for Oklahoma State?
After Oklahoma State knocked off its Bedlam rival Oklahoma, 71-60, players in the locker room were asked about Kansas, their next opponent. Apparently, the breaking news of mid-afternoon had not circulated with the Cowboys.
Top-seed and regular-season champion Kansas announced Wednesday afternoon that center Udoka Azubuike won’t play in the Big 12 tournament. The 7-foot, 280-pound sophomore sprained the medial collateral ligament in Tuesday’s practice in Lawrence. The Jayhawks hope that he’ll be healthy enough to play in the NCAA Tournament next week.
Oklahoma State, which swept the season series with last Saturday’s 18-point victory in Stillwater, will face a KU team that will be more short-handed than usual. The Cowboys’ NCAA Tournament chances – and the possibility of the Big 12 placing nine – yes, nine – teams in the bracket are increasing.
The way that the Cowboys were playing – they dominated the Sooners for most of the game – the case can be made that Oklahoma State is the favorite to win the tournament and the automatic bid. Coach Mike Boynton, though, was stomping on the brakes.
“Ummmmm, I don’t know about that,” Boynton said the Cowboys are the team to beat. “We won’t be favored against Kansas, you know that, right? I’m confident we’ll play hard. We’ve played well against them. Not having Azubuike will change their team, but what they do best is shoot threes. And he doesn’t shoot any of those.”
KU’s big man injury bug
Over the last five seasons, Kansas has had buzzard’s luck when it comes to injuries to its big men. Joel Embiid (2014), Perry Ellis (2015), Cliff Alexander (sidelined by NCAA eligibility issues in 2016), Udoka Azubuike (2017). Azubuike was sidelined last season after 11 games. And now he’s out for the Big 12 tournament.
Coach Bill Self said after his team’s shootaround at the Sprint Center that Azubuike will be reevaluated Sunday and our expectation is that “he’ll be back on the court next week.”
His ability to heal and get healthy enough to play will determine Kansas’ chances of making a deep March Madness run. Azubuike is the team’s only consistent low-post threat. He averages 24 minutes, scores 13.7 per game with 7.1 rebounds per game. The Jayhawks’ other low-post players are 6-8 sophomore Mitch Lightfoot and 6-9 sophomore Silvio De Sousa. They combine for 18 minutes a game, 5.8 points and 3.4 rebounds.
“Mitch is gonna have to play Doke minutes and Silvio will have to play Mitch’s minutes,” Self said. “We need Silvio to be one of our best players. It’s not, ‘Don’t play to not screw up, go play to win.’ When you know you’re on a short leash, your mind set is different. If this had happened a couple of days ago we could have practiced more with five guards.”
With Azubuikie unavailable, Kansas has eight healthy scholarship players but only seven that have been impactful. Sam Cunliffe, a 6-6 sophomore guard, has only played in 12 games.
“It changes things,” West Virginia coach Bob Huggins said when told the news. “He’s a force as a scorer, a rebounder and a rim protector. I would think that would hurt a lot of the things they do with ball screens.”
While this Kansas team is about to break the record set last season for most 3-pointers, the offense has featured Azubuike setting screens and then rolling to the basket for dunks. That will be less of a featured play with Lightfoot or De Sousa playing the five.