Tom Keegan: Josh Jackson rising up to meet every steep challenge

Kansas guard Josh Jackson (11) is fouled on the drive by Texas Tech forward Zach Smith (11) with seconds remaining in regulation, Saturday, Feb. 11, 2017 at United Supermarkets Arena in Lubbock, Texas. The foul put Jackson at the free throw line where he hit the second of two shots to give the Jayhawks a one-point lead and ultimately, the win.

Kansas went into Morgantown three weeks ago for the opener of a defining eight-game stretch that included five tests against schools that at that moment were ranked among the top seven in the nation.

Duke was the only of KU’s first 19 opponents that remained in the top 25 when the toughest portion of the Jayhawks’ schedule arrived, so questions still needed to be answered about coach Bill Self’s 14th Kansas team.

Six games into that potential death march, KU has held up just fine with a 4-2 record. The stretch concludes this week with Monday’s 8 p.m. tipoff against West Virginia in Allen Fieldhouse and a noon tipoff Saturday at Baylor.

Such brutal blocks of a schedule have been known to expose freshmen as less-than-ready for the prime-time. Not just any freshman, Josh Jackson has exploded with his most productive run, which figures. His emergence as a consistent big-time scorer coincides precisely with the uptick in the difficulty of the schedule. The more his team needs him, the better he tends to play.

In the six games, Jackson is averaging 21.5 points and 8.0 rebounds, is shooting .593 on 2-pointers, .565 on 3-pointers and just .526 from the free-throw line. He delivered his best game Saturday in Lubbock, where he totaled 31 points and 11 rebounds, made 12 of 15 field goals and 5 of 7 free throws, including the game-winner in the 80-79 escape from Lubbock.

He showed terrific poise and awareness in not taking the bait set by Tech’s experienced, clever defenders.

“One of the biggest things we talked about this game is that they really like to take charges,” Jackson said. “As you see, they do a really good job of that. I had to be mindful when I was driving.”

He was whistled for just two personal fouls, neither of the offensive variety, an illustration of another of Jackson’s positive traits: He takes instruction well.

His recent surge makes him the only Big 12 player to rank in the top 15 in conference games in scoring (17.4, fourth), rebounding (7.3, seventh), assists (2.9, 14th), blocked shots (14th) and steals (tied for eighth).

He has produced a double-double in four of his past five games and has hit multiple 3-pointers in five of his past six games.

Jackson led Kansas with 22 points in the first West Virginia game, but it wasn’t enough to stave off an 85-69 loss, the only of three Kansas setbacks to come in regulation. Kansas will have the home crowd on its side this time, but the Mountaineers (20-5 overall, 8-4 in the Big 12) are a tough matchup anywhere because of their ability to expose a Kansas vulnerability, defending dribble-penetration.

The defensive help Jackson can lend will be needed as much as his scoring if West Virginia targets Svi Mykhailiuk the way Texas Tech did.

Not all of Jackson’s contributions result in statistics, but he does have a chance to leave KU with more points and rebounds than any freshman in the school’s rich history.

Andrew Wiggins totaled 597 points in 35 games, his final a four-point effort on 1-for-6 shooting in a loss to Stanford, Danny Manning 258 rebounds in 34 games.

Kansas (22-3, 10-2) has six remaining regular-season games, anywhere from one to three in the Big 12 tournament and anywhere from one to six in the NCAA tourney, which means he has from eight to 15 games left.

To reach 598 points and 258 rebounds, Jackson needs to average 22.8 points and 12.0 rebounds in eight games; 20.3, 9.4 in nine; 18.2, 8.4 in 10; 16.6, 7.6 in 11; 15.2, 7.0 in 12; 14.0, 6.5 in 13; 13.0, 6.0 in 14; 12.2, 5.6 in 15.

Then it’s off to the NBA, where he’ll pile millions of dead presidents on top of each other for a couple of decades.

“He might be the first guy to shake the (NBA) commissioner’s hand here in a few months (on draft night),” Texas Tech coach Chris Beard said after a near-miss for the improved Red Raiders. “It’s his talent, but you’ve got to give the Kansas coaching staff some credit. (Self’s) guys get better. They come in great and they get better. That’s what makes Kansas Kansas.”