MEMPHIS, Tenn. -- Final minutes of a tight game with first place in Conference USA at stake, and Memphis coach Josh Pastner was trying to hold on by using five first-year players.
Antonio and Will Barton, the brothers from Baltimore, were on the court. So was Charles Carmouche, a transfer from New Orleans. A pair of local products -- freshmen Chris Crawford and Tarik Black -- rounded out the lineup, and up and down the court they went while an announced crowd of 16,818 cheered and chanted here at FedExForum.
Joe Jackson watched from the bench.
He was two seats from assistant Jack Murphy.
He checked in only when Memphis wanted an extra free-throw shooter on the court.
"It's hard," Jackson later acknowledged in the locker room, minutes after the Tigers recorded a 62-58 victory over UAB that launched them to the top of the C-USA standings. "There's a lot of stuff that goes through my head."
Joe Jackson was a consensus Top 25 prospect from the Class of 2010, a McDonald's All-American and the most heralded local product to sign with Memphis in more than 15 years, which is among the reasons he was labeled the key piece of Pastner's second recruiting class. The 6-foot point guard was a legend before he even graduated from White Station High. With little regard for Elvis Presley (or even Jerry Lawler), he tattooed "King of Memphis" on his chest and set out to, in the post John Calipari era, save the program and, by extension, the city.
Turns out, the program and city are fine.
In an odd twist, it's Jackson who needs to be lifted.
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Yes, he's still the Tigers' starting point guard, but that's more symbolic than anything else. Memphis' past four games have all been victories decided by an average of 3.8 points, and Jackson has been benched each time in favor of other first-year guards -- most notably Antonio Barton, a three-star recruit widely viewed six months ago as little more than his brother's brother.
Jackson was limited to six minutes against Gonzaga (Feb. 5), 10 minutes against UCF (Feb. 9) and 14 minutes against Southern Miss (last Saturday). He got 20 minutes in this victory against UAB, had some nice moments and finished with 12 points. But he still wasn't a part of Pastner's "closing" lineup, and so the same question that has been asked in this city for weeks will continue to be asked heading into the weekend.
What's wrong with Joe?
"Joe is a great kid, and he's going to be one of the great Tigers. I'm just telling you, he's going to be one of the greats," Pastner said. "But right now, Joe just needs positive reinforcement or he needs to be left alone. He's got so many people talking to him. He just needs to be left alone."
Good luck with that.
When you're a local basketball legend from a basketball-crazed city who chooses to play for the local university, there is no being left alone. Every dribble and pass is questioned, and when you're not playing well or a lot the questions come from all angles.
|Memphis coach Josh Pastner predicts a bright future for Joe Jackson, yet is reluctant to let him play in clutch situations. (US Presswire)|
He seemed equal parts positive and sad, if that makes sense. He's happy the team is winning, but he's clearly bothered by his diminished role because he has never not been great. He led his high school team to a state title and his summer team to a national title.
Struggling is what many freshmen do, but it's not something Joe Jackson was supposed to do. And yet he's doing it. On a big stage. In his hometown.
And everywhere he goes -- to class, to the store, to the barber shop -- folks are either criticizing him for not playing or criticizing his coach for not playing him. There is no escape.
"Joe told me he had to shut down Facebook," Pastner said. "He was getting all these crazy messages."
The good news is that Jackson was at the Finch Center late Tuesday long after most of his teammates were in bed. Depending on whom you ask, he was inside the practice facility till either 2 a.m. or 3 a.m. shooting jumpers and free throws, point being that Jackson hasn't folded in the face of unexpected adversity. He continues to work in hopes that he'll break through and live up to the hype that comes with being identified as the "King of Memphis."
That nickname was fun for so many years.
Now, when Jackson speaks, it's clear it has become a burden.
"A lot of people look up to me in this city -- as a basketball player and as a person," Jackson said. "But people just have to be patient, and I just have to be patient. This is just the beginning of my story. I'm not going to be a failure. ... I refuse to be a failure."