COLUMBIA — It might surprise you to hear that Lakeem Jackson still wants to play basketball after his college career ends in the coming days. After all, the sport has brought him mostly frustrating results on the court since he arrived at South Carolina before the 2009-10 season.
Jackson, a 6-5 wing player, and Shane Phillips, a former walk-on guard, will be honored on Senior Night tonight against Mississippi State. The Gamecocks are having another sluggish season, but they could beat the Bulldogs — the Southeastern Conference’s worst team — and send Jackson out with a result that has been uncommon in his career.
With Saturday’s regular season finale at Vanderbilt and the SEC tournament still remaining, the Gamecocks are 52-69 (16-48 SEC) during Jackson’s career. At 13-16 (3-13) this season, they need a late surge to avoid their fourth straight losing overall record. They haven’t done that since their first four years in the SEC, 1992-95, when they went 39-71 (17-47).
Coach Frank Martin’s first season was going to be a rebuilding year all along. More progress will be expected next year, when Martin continues to bring in his own recruits. Barring a strong finish this year, the Gamecocks will try to avoid their fifth straight losing overall record. That has happened once in their history — 1919 to 1923.
But all of the losing Jackson endured hasn’t diminished his desire to continue playing basketball. He said he is scheduled to earn a retail degree this summer, then wants to play overseas.
“I still love the game, man,” he said. “This game has done a lot for me. It opened up a lot of doors for me, met a lot of great people playing this game. So I’ll never lose the love for the game, no matter how many losses or wins or whatever. I’ll always love the game.”
Jackson came to USC for coach Darrin Horn’s second season, in a recruiting class that also included guard Ramon Galloway, who played two seasons and transferred to La Salle, where he now stars for a team likely headed to the NCAA tournament.
Guard LaShay Page, a one-year transfer who arrived this season, would have been part of tonight’s festivities, but he was declared academically ineligible after the first semester.
That leaves only Phillips and Jackson, who most USC casual fans recognize for his awkward one-handed free-throw shooting technique adopted this season to overcome his struggles. He shot 37.5 percent on free throws last season and is at 33.9 this year.
Jackson ranks sixth on the team in scoring, with 7.7 points per game, but offense has never been his greatest strength. He has started 95 of his 117 career games — though just 12 of 31 last season — but his career scoring average is 6.4 points, and never more than 7.8 in a season.
Jackson contributes more with hustle plays. He is averaging a career-best six rebounds, second on the team. USC’s lack of size often requires him to box out larger players.
He made two of the season’s biggest plays in the final 30 seconds of a 63-62 win over Mississippi. He sustained a possession by tipping a missed shot to Eric Smith for the go-ahead 3-pointer, then had the game-clinching block of a leaner with two seconds left.
“Just doing the things that I do,” he said. “That will be a memorable moment.”
Despite all the losses and role changes in his career, particularly this season, he doesn’t want to bemoan the past as his future approaches.
“I can’t really do anything about what happened,” he said. “We worked hard every day, so we don’t have any regrets on that. We didn’t really get the results we wanted, but we worked hard.”
Martin said before the season that he hoped Jackson would help lay the foundation for the winning culture Martin wants to bring to USC.
“He’s tried, and he’s given us a solid year,” Martin said. “He’s come in every day and he’s tried to do what he’s been asked to do.”