UNC’s Justin Jackson tries to ignore burgeoning hype

After another memorable performance in what's becoming a long line of them, Justin Jackson, the North Carolina junior forward, said he tries to enter each game with zen-like mental clarity, and a focus on the things in his life most important to him.

That, he said, would be things like school and family and “not getting caught up in the hype.”

“That guys like y'all might write,” Jackson said with a smile.

Ignoring the hype, though, is about to become more difficult for Jackson, for it is building. Jackson has been one of the ACC's best, most consistent players this season – but he has thrived in the kind of relative anonymity that belies his role on one of the nation's best teams.

And yet the word, finally, is starting to get out: Jackson might be as good as anyone in the country. Jackson during the Tar Heels' 74-63 victory against Louisville on Wednesday night finished with 21 points – the ninth time in an ACC game this season that he's scored at least 20.

He made four 3-pointers, the 10th time this season that he's made at least that many. And he played so well that Rick Pitino, the Louisville coach, offered effusive praise afterward.

“The two players I'm most impressed with in college basketball this year – one, never gets any credit,” Pitino said. “Justin Jackson to me should be one of the key guys for the Wooden Award.”

UNC supporters might not want to hear the other name Pitino mentioned: Duke's Luke Kennard. Unlike Jackson, though, Kennard for weeks has been a part of the national conversation for player of the year awards and All-American honors.

For a while now Kennard has received recognition. Now Jackson is earning his.

“I don't know which guy I would pick for player of the year,” Pitino said. “They're both awesome.”

After Wednesday, Jackson is averaging 18.7 points per game, which ranks seventh in the conference. He has made an average of 2.7 3-pointer per game, which ranks second in the ACC behind Syracuse's Andrew White.

Jackson is making 39.6 percent of his 3-point attempts – an improvement of about 10 percent from last season. Since his freshman year, when Jackson made 30.4 percent of his 3-point attempts, he has become one of the most improved -- if not the most improved -- shooters in school history.

Jackson made 63 3-pointers during his first two years at UNC. He has made 78 this season, and with 18 more 3-pointers Jackson would set the school record for most in a season. Meanwhile, Jackson is earning more attention just about every time he plays.

For a while this year he thrived in obscurity, relative to his accomplishments. No longer, though. After the victory against Louisville on Wednesday, someone told Jackson what Pitino had said – that he should be a leading candidate for national player of the year honors.

As he often tries to do, Jackson dismissed the hype.

“Those type of awards, I'll let y'all talk about them. Obviously, there's guys like Luke, Donovan's playing great,” he said of Louisville's Donovan Mitchell. “There's a bunch of guys in the ACC that are extremely good. So for me, I'll let y'all talk about who's the front runner, who's in the conversation. I'm not really worried about all of that.

“I'm worried about the fact that we're two games in first and we can still control our own destiny.”

Andrew Carter: 919-829-8944, @_andrewcarter

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