Originally posted on Fox Sports Houston  |  Last updated 11/17/11
Tamir Jackson said all the right things during a preseason meet-and-greet with media last month. He was forthright in assuming blame for past bouts of immaturity, and sincere in praise of freshmen teammates that arrived even more heralded than he and classmate Arsalan Kazemi. It would have been easy to discount those words had Jackson returned to the court and reprised his role of inconsistent floor general, a junior guard as capable of exceptional plays as untimely displays of sulking. But last Saturday against New Orleans, Jackson quietly provided Rice everything required to coast to an easy season-opening win. When the Owls needed more Thursday night against Southern, Jackson delivered. Scorching from the opening tip, Jackson carried the Owls to an 80-65 win over Southern at Tudor Fieldhouse by pouring in a career-high 29 points as Rice (2-0) opened play in the South Padre Island Invitational. Jackson shot 9-of-13 from the floor, including 4-of-5 from behind the 3-point arc. When the Jaguars (1-2) closed to within two points on a three-point play by guard Cameron Monroe, Jackson sparked a 10-0 burst by scoring the last eight points of that run midway through the second half. "Me and coach (Ben) Braun talked all summer about me being balanced, trying to help the team win any way I can," Jackson said. "And so I took that upon myself being a leader of the team. The first game I only took three shots but I shot a high percentage. This game I took more and I still had a high percentage. When I let the game come to me I think I play a lot better." Secondary to the role Jackson played in leading the Owls to victory was the undeniable on-court chemistry he's developed with freshman point guard Dylan Ennis. That tandem combined to score the final 10 points of the first half for the Owls, with Ennis igniting the offense with a pair of 3-pointers upon entering the game with 9:01 left before intermission. Jackson assisted on the first Ennis 3, with Ennis returning the favor as Jackson connected from behind the arc to bump the lead to 62-53 with 10:34 remaining. Although Jackson has the ability to orchestrate the offense, Braun has longed to play him off of the ball more frequently. Ennis possesses the skill set to occasionally free up Jackson, allowing for his ability to score from the perimeter in transition to shine through. "We had a chemistry when he came on his visit," Jackson said. "We played open gym together and me and him was on a team and we won every game we played. We didn't lose. He kind of reminds me of me, just more athletic, and so I know how he plays and he knows how I play." Added Ennis: "Being on the court with him it makes me very comfortable because Coach Braun told me I can come in and play besides Tamir. And him having so much experience and being such a great guard, he just makes the game a lot easier for everybody else. "Me and him just connect. In practice Coach always has us going back and forth with each other, and that's because he wants to push us. And when we get in the game me and him know where each other is going to be. I just feed of him and he feeds off me." Although Ennis chipped in 14 points and five rebounds, the Owls needed a stretch of stingy defense to finally stifle the Jaguars. While cutting the deficit to two points, Southern scored four consecutive baskets in which the Owls were also whistled for fouls. The Jaguars completed only half of those three-point play opportunities, but that span amplified the Owls' problems with fundamentally sound defense. Southern managed just three baskets the rest of the way. Rice did not surrender an offensive rebound in the second half, and after shooting a solid 46.7 percent before the break, Southern missed 13 of 22 shots following the intermission. It wasn't stellar defense, but it was effective. With the insertion of five freshmen in the rotation, personnel groupings remain in flux. Braun admitted that the Owls are several weeks away from establishing a set eight-man rotation with some of the current experimentation yielding undesirable stretches on offense and defense. Yet old standbys remain. Kazemi recorded his 29th career double-double with 10 points and 13 rebounds, adding a career-best five assists to boot. Senior forward Lucas Kuipers added 10 points and five rebounds before fouling out. And Jackson was simply magnificent, surging to the forefront after playing the background as superbly five nights earlier. "Not only what I liked about Tamir was his toughness out there making plays, but he was all the while trying to lead," Braun said. "Trying to encourage, talking with our coaches, talking with me on the sideline that's what leaders do. He's confident enough in his ability now that he's doing more. He's taking that extra step, and that's becoming that total, all-around player." Follow me on Twitter at FSH_Owls
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