WACO -- Baylor point guard Pierre Jackson has a scar on his right elbow. The joint is held together by a metal plate and seven screws, a souvenir from a surgical experience that changed his game forever.
For the better.
Jackson shattered his shooting elbow during a summer-league game soon after graduating from high school. Doctors did not clear him to play for his junior college team, the College of Southern Idaho, until a week before the first game of his freshman season.
"I couldn't extend my elbow the whole year," said Jackson, who played that season with a protective sleeve on his shooting arm. "I couldn't score the ball the way I wanted. So I focused on getting my teammates involved and started seeing the court better. It helped a lot."
Fast forward to today, when Jackson -- now a junior in his first season at Baylor -- will lead the Bears (27-7) into an NCAA Tournament that begins with Sweet Sixteen expectations and Final Four dreams, based on Baylor's No. 3 seed in the South Regional. Baylor meets South Dakota State (27-7), champion of the Summit League, at 6:27 tonight in Albuquerque.
Jackson enters the game as the Bears' team leader in points (453), assists (196) and immediate impact. In his first season on campus, Jackson has been part of eight go-ahead, game-tying or game-winning plays in late-game situations.
A Baylor team that finished last season with more turnovers (487) than assists (365) -- and no postseason tournament -- has made significant strides with Jackson in control of the Bears' offense. Baylor has a 497-461 ratio of assists-to-turnovers this season, with Jackson (5-foot-10, 180 pounds) needing four assists to become the second player in school history to hit the 200 mark in a season. Clearly, he's finding open teammates while averaging 13.3 points per game.
Kansas State coach Frank Martin, whose NCAA-bound Wildcats (21-10) lost two of three meetings against Baylor this season, said Jackson has evolved into "the head of the monster" for a team that needed one.
"He's electric. He makes plays on both ends of the court that change games," Martin said. "In our scouting report, we always put that he is the head of the monster. He is the guy that makes their team go... You try to limit his steals on defense and his penetration on offense. But that's not easy. He's fun to watch but not fun to play against."
Jackson's skills as a distributor turned the heads of future Baylor teammates when he joined them for an open-gym session last summer after leading College of Southern Idaho to a 2011 NJCAA national title. Burly, bearded forward Quincy Acy (6-7, 225) recalled giving Jackson "the death stare" while trying to force a commitment from him because he knew what kind of impact Jackson could make at Baylor.
"No, he didn't," Jackson said, smiling. "Quincy... just makes it seem like he's all tough, with his beard. Don't let him fool you. But Quincy is a great dude and a great leader. He knew what the team needed. I guess he thought, as well as I did, that I could be a good fit here."
From the perspective of coach Scott Drew, it has been a hand-in-glove situation. But Jackson traveled a circuitous path to Baylor, starting with his days as a youth-league player in Las Vegas, where he honed his ball-handling skills while dribbling to and from the neighborhood Boys & Girls Club for daily pick-up games.
"I never really went to any camps or anything," said Jackson, who went to junior college because he did not qualify academically to accept a Division I scholarship coming out of high school. After moving to Idaho, Jackson realized his elbow surgery clouded his college career because it altered the trajectory of his shot. So he worked on recapturing his shot in post-practice shooting sessions until the rhythm and feeling returned.
"I was in the gym more than anyone else. I just had to get it back," said Jackson, who eventually arrived at Baylor as the nation's top-rated JC recruit.
In addition to posting the Bears' highest single-season assist total since Nelson Haggerty set the Baylor record (284) in 1994-95, Jackson has been a 43.4 percent shooter from beyond the 3-point arc. He's made 62 of 143 attempts and, as a defender, has a team-high 57 steals.
The lone drawback, in Drew's estimation, has been 119 turnovers. But because of Jackson's quickness, Drew tends to grade the gaffes on a sliding scale.
"He plays at such a speed, it's kind of like NASCAR," Drew said. "Those cars move so fast, there's going to be wrecks at times. It's the same with Pierre. He has a gear that other players don't have."
He also has something few other point guards will bring into the NCAA Tournament: knowledge that he's led a team to a title in a similar environment. Drew is counting on that to carry the Bears for the next three weeks.
"Winning a championship in junior college, or at any level, is tough," Drew said. "That experience is definitely going to help him. But the magnitude of the NCAA Tournament will be a first for him... In junior college, you're not getting police escorts to arenas [for team buses] and dealing with the same level of off-court distractions. But at the end of the day, winners want to win. And Pierre's a winner. Pierre plays his best basketball the better the opponent."
Jimmy Burch, 817-390-7760