Jim Jackson was one of the best college basketball in the country in his three years in Columbus. Arriving in 1990, he helped the Buckeyes make the NCAA field as a freshman. In 1991, they shared the Big Ten title and got a 1-seed in the NCAA Tournament. And the 1992 Ohio State basketball team was the best yet, winning the conference outright, again getting a 1-seed and coming within a basket of the Final Four.
Jackson averaged 23 points/7 rebounds per game in his junior year and was also a good passer. He won Big Ten MVP honors and was a first-team All-American. He was the clear alpha dog on a team that included a couple nice forwards in Chris Jent and Lawrence Funderburke. They combined for 25 points/11 rebounds per game. Jamaal Brown kicked in 10 more a night in the backcourt. And Mark Baker was a skilled quarterback of the offense.
Ohio State was ranked seventh nationally to start the year. Expectations were high, but they were still behind rival Indiana in the polls. IU had been co-conference champs in 1991, also had everyone back, also had a great forward in Calbert Cheaney and were ranked #2. These two teams had defined the Big Ten race the year before and they would do so again in 1992.
The non-conference schedule was mostly easy and the Buckeyes went through it at 8-1. They lost the only notable test, at USC. But this Trojan team was one headed for a 2-seed in the NCAAs and it was a 79-77 game.
Big Ten play started with a solid 62-46 win over Michigan State, an NCAA-bound team and continued with an easy win over lowly Northwestern. It set up the first big showdown of the season with Indiana. The Buckeyes went to Bloomington and lost 91-83.
A pair of tough games followed against Iowa and Minnesota. The Buckeyes won both, 85-81 and 72-69. But there was reason to wonder whether Ohio State was really a nationally elite team again. Both games had been at home and while the Hawkeyes were en route to the NCAAs, they weren’t anything spectacular. And Minnesota wasn’t very good at all.
Questions had to be further raised on Super Bowl Sunday when Ohio State played a non-conference game at Seton Hall. The 68-64 loss certainly wasn’t embarrassing—not to a team that would get to the 4-line of the NCAA bracket and make the Sweet 16. But again, if you were looking for signs that this Buckeye team was among the nation’s best, they had not yet been provided.
Ohio State narrowly escaped Illinois 74-72 and then went to Ann Arbor. Michigan had brought in the most heralded recruiting class in college basketball history, the “Fab Five.” The Buckeyes delivered a 68-58 win. They followed that up by beating a weak Wisconsin team and mediocre Purdue. A road trip to Madison for a quick rematch with the Badgers resulted in a hard-fought 67-63 win.
With only one conference loss and a home game against Indiana still in their back pocket, the Buckeyes were squarely in control of their Big Ten destiny. But they gave it away with a pair of six-point losses. The first one came at Iowa and the second one came at home to the Hoosiers. Ohio State was a game back in the league race.
In terms of the race for the Big Ten crown—something that remains a big prize in the Midwest and was even more so in the early 1990s when a 10-team league played a pure double round-robin schedule, this was the low point. Ohio State was ready with a response.
They went to Purdue and got a win, then got another at Michigan State. It set up the Fab Five’s trip into Columbus and the Buckeyes won that game, 77-66. The schedule was soft the rest of the way—Northwestern, Illinois and Minnesota—but Ohio State still needed help.
Over the season’s penultimate weekend, they got it. Michigan beat Indiana, while Ohio State took care of business against Northwestern. The Buckeyes were tied for first. Even though they would likely lose out on a 1-seed due to the two losses to Indiana, a piece of the league hardware was back in their control.
Ohio State made sure they sewed up their share of the Big Ten with decisive wins, capping the regular season with a rout of Minnesota on Saturday night. The Big Ten did not have a conference tournament prior to 1998, so it was Selection Sunday when Ohio State got their final bit of help—Purdue upset Indiana. Just three weeks earlier, even a share of the conference championship seemed a stretch. Now Ohio State was the outright 1992 Big Ten basketball champions.
The reward was the 1-seed in the Southeast Regional and being sent to play their opening NCAA Tournament games in nearby Cincinnati. The Buckeyes opened with an easy 83-56 win over Mississippi Valley State, with Funderburke going for 19 points and Jent adding 12 points/12 rebounds. Jackson had shot 3-for-13. In the moment, it was just one bad game. In reality, it was a bit of a harbinger.
Jackson got 23 points in the 78-55 rout of Connecticut in the second round, but it came on 7-for-26 shooting. Defense keyed the win—the Buckeyes forced the Huskies into 37 percent shooting and a close 31-30 game at halftime turned into a runaway.
The regionals were in Lexington and a high-profile opponent in North Carolina, the 4-seed was up. Ohio State trailed by five at the half, but Jackson played his best game of the tournament, scoring 18 and shooting a respectable 8-for-17. Funderburke added 21 and the Buckeyes won it 80-73.
They were one stop from the Final Four and an old “friend” was in the way. Those kids from Michigan had matured into a March force and reached the regional final as a 6-seed. An Ohio State-Michigan rivalry that’s inspired books for its football battles, now had a big-time basketball game at hand.
It was a game worth of the stakes, but it ended in disappointment for Ohio State. Jackson scored 20, but at 9-for-21 shooting, he wasn’t quite as efficient as Wolverine stars Chris Webber and Jalen Rose. That efficiency was the difference in a game that went to overtime, where Ohio State lost 75-71.
The loss was disappointing, but nothing could take away from the excellence of a season where Ohio State won an outright Big Ten crown in a league that included two Final Four teams, Michigan and Indiana. The real disappointment came in the aftermath.
Jackson declared for the NBA and just how much this program and head coach Randy Ayers had been carried by him became evident. Ayers, whose first year as head coach had coincided with Jackson’s arrival, never again made the NCAA Tournament. Ohio State went 15-13 in 1993 and went through four straight losing years before Ayers was fired.
But that’s looking ahead. Jim Jackson was as good as there was. His son Traevon went on to star at Wisconsin from 2012-15 and Jackson himself became a part of the Big Ten Network. Those early 1990s Ohio State team were excellent and none was better than the 1992 edition.