By: Will Burchfield
In case Jim Boeheim wanted a reminder that he’s 73-years-old and has been roaming the sideline at Syracuse for 49 of them, he’ll coach on Sunday versus a player whose father gave him fits way back when.
That would be Jaren Jackson Jr., Michigan State’s freshman phenom. Jackson’s dad, Jaren Jackson Sr., played at Georgetown from 1985-1989 before enjoying a 12-year NBA career. The elder Jackson went 8-3 versus the Hoyas’ erstwhile Big East rival, much to Boeheim’s chagrin.
“He was a really, really good player at Georgetown. Didn’t like him too much. I don’t like anything about Georgetown. But he’s a really good player. His son’s an even better player,” Boeheim said, chuckling at the challenge. “He’s a really good player.”
With Michigan State and Syracuse set to square off in the second round of the NCAA Tournament on Sunday, it’d be fun to think Jackson Jr. inherited some of his father’s Georgetown blood. It’d be fun to think he hated Syracuse growing up.
“Nah, I didn’t. I actually grew up liking them because of my dad, just to make him upset,” the 18-year-old said with an eight-year-old’s impish laugh.
This fandom was for real. Asked to name his favorite Syracuse player as a kid, Jackson Jr., typically quick with an answer, paused and began racking his brain.
“Wow,” he said. “Interesting.”
After some thought, he brought up Tyler Ennis, the dynamic point guard who was a one-and-done — just like Jackson Jr. will be — in the 2013-14 season.
“He was kind of like how Trae Young is right now. Everybody was kind of on him like that. I know C.J. Fair, a lot of dudes like that, (Rakeem) Christmas. Wow,” Jackson Jr. said, surprising even himself. “I do know a lot of (Syracuse players).”
Then he began snapping his fingers, trying to recall another name.
“Oh, oh, oh. Who’s that dude with the wrist tape? Virginia-Syracuse, you know that game? In the tournament? Remember when Syracuse wasn’t supposed to beat Virginia and they beat Virginia?” Jackson said, harking back to the 2016 Elite Eight. “Who was that hooper? No. 23, I think.”
In a neighboring media scrum at Miles Bridges’ locker, a reporter leaned backward and turned around.
“Richardson?” the reporter asked.
“Yeah, Malachi Richardson!” Jackson exclaimed. “That’s my dude.”
It wasn’t just because of the tape that Richardson wore around his right wrist. It was also thanks to his performance in that improbable win over No. 1 seed Virginia (sound familiar?) when Richardson poured in 14 points down the stretch to help the Orange wipe out a 13-point second-half deficit.
“Oh, the wrist tape swag is dope, but he put on a show that game,” Jackson Jr. said. “I’m a big fan of his game. He’s just a really good player.” (Richardson, another one-and-done, now plays for the Lakers.)
Meanwhile, Jackson Jr. got to know Fair, one of Syracuse’s all-time greats, because Fair played for Jackson Sr. in the NBA Development League in the 2014-15 season. Whenever Jackson Jr. and Fair run into each other in basketball circles, they make a point of catching up.
Jackson Jr.’s passion for Syracuse, not to mention his NBA length and athleticism, would have made him a natural recruit for Boeheim. He can’t quite remember if Syracuse came calling — that’s what happens when offers flow in from all corners of the country — but a quick search online confirmed the Orange were not among those to pursue one of the top players in the 2017 class.
Eventually, Jackson Jr. chose Michigan State over Purdue, Maryland, Notre Dame, and yes, his father’s alma mater. He hasn’t yet talked to his dad (as of Saturday afternoon) about Sunday’s matchup, but he knows what he’s thinking.
“Shoot, it’s a Georgetown-Syracuse thing. There’s only thing on his mind, you know that. It’s a rivalry for him,” said Jackson Jr. “But he’s more MSU right now mentally. Whatever I’m doing, he’s with me.”