by Aaron Beard, Associated Press
CHAPEL HILL— North Carolina's Justin Jackson knows he's been guilty of overthinking on the court and letting past struggles or outside criticism get to him.
How well he manages to let go and move on could determine how far the Tar Heels go in the NCAA Tournament.
The Tar Heels played their best ball last season when the 6-foot-8 wing found a groove late in his freshman year. Now the East Region's top seed, UNC again needs Jackson to carry late-season momentum into the NCAAs to reach the Final Four.
"Honestly that's kind of a love-hate relationship because you've got people that say, 'When Justin's playing like this, they're a really good team,'" Jackson said in an interview with The Associated Press. "And if I'm not playing like that, I'm this or that, I'm failing my team and stuff like that.
"For me, at the end of the day, it's not just me, but everybody has to step up. And that's what I'm trying to do right now."
The Tar Heels — who play Thursday against the Fairleigh Dickinson-Florida Gulf Coast winner in nearby Raleigh — have All-America candidate Brice Johnson inside, Marcus Paige showing signs of emerging from a long shooting funk and Joel Berry II as MVP of the Atlantic Coast Conference Tournament.
But they need Jackson to provide reliable perimeter scoring, too.
The Tomball, Texas native has started all but two games while averaging 12.1 points, and stepped up to average 14.3 points on 51-percent shooting over the final eight games as UNC (28-6) closed out the ACC regular-season title.
Before scoring six in the win against Virginia for the ACC Tournament title, Jackson had a career-best 10 straight double-figure scoring games.
"He has a floater that's unbelievable," Virginia's Anthony Gill said. "He can it hit it from the free-throw line or even farther than that. . Every time that we've played him, he's been a big part of it because he can do so many different things (with his size) that most guards can't do."
Jackson ended last year by reaching double figures in 11 of 12 games as UNC reached the NCAA Sweet 16. The difference now is he said he's better at getting past a bad outing, though it's taken work.
When his shot wavered to start ACC play, Jackson said he often thought of hitting the gym to shoot more. Yet he continued to struggle, making 2 of 22 3-pointers through the first 10 games.
He even deleted the Twitter app from his phone to avoid reading negative comments that can get "ingrained in your mind."
"That's kind of my weakness in life, honestly — I overthink a lot," Jackson said. "On the court, it's whether we can get a better shot instead of me just taking the shot. On defense, it's what spot should I be in instead of just guarding my man or just going and helping.
"And then a lot of the thinking was, 'I've been struggling. I've missed the past 20 3s that I've shot, I've got to make this one' instead of just 'This is going in.'"
Jackson broke out at Boston College with 20 points on 9-for-11 shooting off the bench while looking more assertive after coach Roy Williams juggled the lineup.
"He's a perfectionist," said his mother, Sharon. "When things aren't going the right way of the way he thinks they should be, he does tend to think about it a lot trying to figure out how to fix those situations. That's kind of how he's always been.
"He finally had to reach that point of, 'OK, I've got to forget about the ones in the past' and just keep going as opposed to trying to think about it."
Williams also points to Jackson's defensive improvement. UNC's coaches have named Jackson defensive player of the game six times compared to once last year.
"It's just try to have fun," Jackson said. "It's easy to say but obviously I was struggling a lot and I was so bent on getting out of those struggles instead of just forgetting everything in the past and just going out there and playing how I know I can. I feel like I said the same exact thing last year. That's all it is: if I miss a shot, move on to the next one."