It only took two games into the 2014-15 season to realize that it might be a special year for sophomore guard Marcus Jackson. After a freshman campaign in which he showed flashes of his scoring potential, the Acton, Calif. native doubled his rookie season scoring high with 30 points in the Owls' home opening win against Prairie View A&M.
"The biggest difference for me this season is definitely my confidence," said Jackson. "It's instilled in me by my teammates and the coaches. They want me to be aggressive and come out every night and play my game. That makes it a lot easier to do that when you have backing from your teammates and coach."
That confidence has taken the guard a long way, as he ranks second on the team in scoring with 14.0 points per game following his 25-point, six three-pointer outing in Rice's win at UTSA on Thursday evening. He ranks third in the league with 2.59 three-pointers and fourth with eight 20-point outings.
Jackson's confidence has only grown throughout the year as he has seen increases in his shooting percentages across the board, to the point that he ranks in the league's top five with an 82.7 free throw percentage. He attributes those gains to extra time in the gym over the summer, working with 2014 graduate Austin Ramljak, who set the program's single-season three-point record as a senior.
"Back in August, everyone went home and I didn't get to, so I didn't have anything to do but go to the gym. Austin was here and all we did every day was shoot and play one-on-one. It helped me a bit. I would have liked to be able to go home and visit my family, but the gym is my second home."
Another aspect of Jackson's game that has improved this year has been his vocal leadership on the court.
"I'm pretty vocal off the court and I talk a lot. On the court, my tendency is to be quiet. But as soon as Coach Rhoades came in, he stressed communication and that's a part of my game that I needed to work on - communicating and leading vocally instead of just by example. That's something Coach Rhoades has helped me with - staying on me and I've improved over the season in that category."
That transition has been helped by his sudden status as a veteran player, even as a sophomore on a young team.
"I do feel I'm a veteran on the team because we have so many young guys and the new coaching staff. It's been a big change from last year. I do feel like I'm a veteran even though I'm a sophomore."
Despite his vast increase in offensive production, Jackson looks to the other end of the court when asked about the part of his game that he's improved the most in this breakout campaign.
"The most improved part is definitely my defense. I've been working with Coach Pera. I didn't really know how to play defense, especially off the ball. I was kind of free roaming and I would just be out there. Coach Pera helped me with that. We watched a lot of film and it's helped me a lot on defense."
As the Owls enter the regular season finale on Saturday at UTEP, the team feels like it still has plenty of basketball ahead this season and the off-season is well in the future. However, Jackson knows what he will work on as the summer approaches.
"I definitely want to work on my body - strength and conditioning. That's my number one goal. Coach Rhoades has told me many times that it should be my main goal. As hard as I work in the gym because I love basketball, I have to work on my body the same way if I want to reach my full potential."
All that hard work in planning is paying off for the sophomore, as he was named to the Conference USA All-Academic Team earlier on Friday. He says the way to successful on and off the court is simple, but not always easy.
"It's very difficult but it's about time management. Everybody talks about time management but it really is important. You have to balance basketball and your school work. The biggest thing is working while you're tired. There are going to be days when you don't feel like doing school work but you have to focus in and get it done. You have to schedule it so you do get the proper amount as rest as much as you can and then go from there and fight through fatigue."
Jackson and the Owls will have to continue to exhibit that discipline to finish the season strong.
Three-Point Barrage Not Enough Against UTEP
Rice University men's basketball rallied back from a second-half deficit, but UTEP was too much for the Owls down the stretch and claimed a 66-57 win at Tudor Fieldhouse on Sunday afternoon.