Minneapolis — Michigan State is a different team with Jaren Jackson Jr. on the court.
That much has been clear as the 6-foot-11 freshman has already established a new Michigan State record for blocks in a season with 92, has been named the Big Ten Freshman of the Week four times, and recently was named as a finalist for the Kareem Abdul-Jabbar Center of the Year Award, though he spends most of his time at the power forward position.
The problem lately, however, is that Jackson can’t stay on the floor. In four of the last six games, Jackson has picked up at least four fouls, earning his fifth in the win at Maryland. He’s managed to play more than 20 minutes just once, logging 25 minutes at Indiana when was whistled for just one foul.
His propensity to get nailed by the officials was again a problem in the win over Purdue as Jackson played just 13 minutes and finished with four fouls.
“The poor kid,” Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said after the Purdue game. “I mean, he’s not even averaging 15 minutes a game in the last five because of foul trouble and I’m struggling with some of that too. You know, I think that to me, there were some touchy ones.”
Touchy ones or not, Jackson needs to stay on the court if the Spartans are to continue to push for the Big Ten championship and head into the postseason with momentum.
Jackson has been a big part of Michigan State’s success, and heading into Tuesday night’s game at Minnesota he was still averaging 11 points and 6.1 rebounds a game. Even with the limited minutes at times, he’s failed to score in double figures just six times and has failed to block at least one shot just twice.
“I know my shot-blocking ability changes the game,” Jackson said after the Iowa game last week when he played 19 minutes. “So me having to balance that with foul trouble, I’m gonna have to learn it eventually. So, it might as well be now.”
When it comes to dealing with off-court issues, Minnesota coach Richard Pitino has some understanding of what Izzo and the Spartans are dealing with.
While Michigan State has been caught up in the Larry Nassar scandal and an ESPN report that did its best to tie in questions about how the basketball and football programs have handed cases of sexual assault and violence toward women, Minnesota has been dealing with the suspension of Reggie Lynch. He was suspended in January over an alleged sexual assault.
So, when the turmoil began at Michigan State, Pitino reached out to Izzo.
“I talked to him after that whole stuff,” Pitino told the Minneapolis Star Tribune. “Just reached out to him just as a coach, because I’ve got a lot of respect for him.”
Pitino said he wasn’t surprised how the Spartans haven’t allowed the distractions to keep them from winning eight straight and staying one back of Ohio State in the Big Ten race.
“I don’t think the players are dealing with that,” Pitino said. “I’m sure Coach Izzo is. I don’t think the players it really affects them in any way. I can’t tell, certainly. They probably have the best talent in the country.”
While Tuesday’s game was generating little buzz considering the Golden Gophers have won just once in the last 11 games, it was once looked at as a potential battle between conference leaders.
But Minnesota’s season has spiraled out of control as Lynch has missed most of the Big Ten season while Amir Coffey (shoulder) and Dupree McBrayer (leg) have been in and out of the lineup.
“There’s been a lot of things that have hit,” Pitino said. “We’ve got to continue to coach them very hard and continue to with whomever is available (and) put them in position to win.”
Michigan State entered Tuesday’s game ranked No. 2 in the country in field-goal percentage defense (36.3 percent), No. 3 in scoring margin (+17.9), No. 1 in blocked shots per game (7.9), No. 3 in rebound margin (+10.1) and No. 26 in scoring defense (65.3 ppg)
... The Spartans also rank No. 2 in field-goal percentage (51.6 percent), No. 1 in assists (20.2 apg) and No. 25 in scoring offense (83.1 ppg).