EDINBURG — As the UTRGV Vaqueros get ready for their third of five consecutive road games and their biggest test of the season, guard Jordan Jackson will be preparing a holiday homecoming of his own.
UTRGV will take on No. 24 Texas Tech in Lubbock, a place central to Jackson’s basketball origins.
Jackson grew up as a Red Raider basketball fan and began his collegiate career on the red and black hardwood at United Supermarkets Arena. This weekend, he’ll return to Lubbock for the last time eager and motivated to lead a hungry Vaqueros team to a marquee win over his former squad.
“That’s just like LeBron James going back to play against Cleveland. You always want to go back to where you first started and it’s always a special moment,” Jackson said. “Hopefully we can come in here and play the brand of basketball I know we can play as a team and be victorious.”
Jackson, a Houston product and two-time TAPPS 5A all-state honoree at St. Pius X High School, committed to Texas Tech and enrolled for the 2015-16 season.
But Jackson’s Red Raiders influences predate his college recruitment. Jackson’s mother, Basketball Hall of Famer Sheryl Swoopes, starred at Texas Tech from 1991-93 before winning three gold medals, three WNBA Defensive Player of the Year and MVP awards, and four consecutive championships with the Houston Comets.
He acknowledges his mother’s experience had some influence, but that his decision was primarily based on basketball fit and then-head coach Tubby Smith. Jackson remembers a whirlwind freshman season before his time in Lubbock came to an abrupt end.
“It was a great experience. Being in the Big XII and making it to the NCAA Tournament as a freshman, that’s always special,” he said. “Things happen and I had to find a different university to go to and luckily I found this great place here that I like to call home now. I’ve been here for three years now and I love it.”
Jackson left Texas Tech after his freshman season and then spent a season at Midland College, where he average 9.0 points and 4.1 rebounds per game on 43.9% shooting in 26 games. That’s when he and Vaqueros head coach Lew Hill discovered one another.
For Jackson, joining Hill at UTRGV seemed like an ideal fit as a basketball family on and off the court.
“It was about finding the right basketball fit as well as finding a person that feels like they care about you off the court as well. Coming here, that’s what I found in Coach Hill,” Jackson said. “He cares about you off the court as well as on the court. He’s going to put you in positions to succeed on and off the floor. That’s really special to me and that’s why I’ve been really happy here these last 3 years.”
Jackson missed all but five games due to injury in his first year at UTRGV, but in his past two seasons has developed into one of the team’s most consistent scorers and stingiest defenders. Hill has praised the graduate transfer guard’s maturity and offensive development since first arriving on campus.
“Jordan is a tremendous talent. What I’m trying to get him to do and what he’s done is that I used to think he was an athlete who played basketball,” Hill said. “Now he’s becoming more of a basketball player who’s an athlete. I think he’s learning the game, and his shooting has gotten a ton better since he’s gotten here and so has his defense. He’s growing in that aspect and he’s scoring a lot more this year.”
Jackson has taken a commanding role in the Vaqueros’ offense in recent weeks as the team continues to try to overcome injuries and work a big group of younger players into the fold. In his fifth year of eligibility, he’s become one of the team’s vocal veteran leaders and taken charge on the court.
“He and Javon (Levi) are our vocal leaders. Lesley kind of leads in a quiet way, and those two lead vocally trying to keep our team upbeat and getting on guys when they need to be getting on them, telling guys to lift their heads when they need a lift. He and Javon are our emotional and vocal leaders.”
Jackson will need to continue to lead by example for the Vaqueros to go blow for blow with the Red Raiders, who are fresh off dispatching then-No. 1 Louisville and a trip to the 2019 national championship game.
He’s averaging a career-high 14.9 points per game and had a streak of nine straight games with 10 points or more before a cold shooting night against Omaha. He’s also led the Vaqueros in points a team-high six times and assists four times.
Jackson knows he and his teammates will have to play sound all-around game, but are excited for the opportunity to score a resume win on a big stage.
“Like coach says, ‘It’s the perfect opportunity for the right people.’ We’re going to take advantage of this opportunity and we’ll come out there and shock the world. In college basketball nowadays, everybody’s getting beat,” he said. “We hopefully want to see our name up there one of these days with a big win. It would do big things for the morale of the team, coaches and fans around here and get everybody excited for what’s going on here coming into conference (play).”
But when UTRGV traveled to Lubbock for a nonconference match up a year ago, Texas Tech pulled out a 71-46 victory and held the Vaqueros’ three returning starters — Jackson, junior point guard Javon Levi and senior forward Lesley Varner — to 13 combined points.
Hill believes that if Jackson and the Vaqueros can maintain their recent levels of production and match the Red Raiders’ defensive intensity, they’ll have a shot to notch a marquee road win.
“Our system fits anyone, but if you don’t have the right mentality of toughness and griminess it doesn’t match up with them because that’s how Tech plays. They make the game ugly,” Hill said. “You’ve got to be tough. You have to be so disciplined when you play a team like this. You’ve got to spread them, move the ball and attack them. If you don’t do that, you don’t have a chance to beat them. If you do those things, it could be a good game.”