Traevon Jackson remembers the moment when college basketball became easier for him, that euphoric moment where the game made sense, the pace of play slowed to a manageable tempo and he started making good, consistent plays for his team.
It was at the same time Wisconsin got the resume-building wins it so desperately needed and now the Badgers right back in the NCAA tournament, a five seed in the West Region with a Friday game against 12th-seed Mississippi (26-8) in Kansas City, Mo.
Running the show is Jackson, son of two-time Ohio State star Jim Jackson. After playing in only 17 games last season, he was suddenly thrust into a position to be a big-time contributor at the point guard position when Josh Gasser tore an ACL before the first game.
He faltered and the Wisconsin coaching went with someone else for the first six games of the season.
"It was tough, but I didn't lose confidence because I knew I could play," Jackson said — and play he did. He became smarter with his ball handling, having 14 assists to only four turnovers over a three-game stretch in late February, and leading the team with 34 steals while defending the other team's top offensive guard.
Then came games against Illinois and on the road at Indiana. The Badgers came away with wins in both — and Jackson was the point guard his team needed him to be.
"That was an important stretch to our season," said associate head coach Greg Gard. "He approached it like any other games. His play helped us get moving in the right direction."
Jackson has gone from averaging only 5.4 minutes and 1.1 points last season to 27.6 minutes and 6.9 points this season.
"I had more starts under my belt and got that full confidence," he said. "I knew I could play. I've always expected that. It felt really good when you start to see things before they happen."
Jackson is one of the many once inexperienced players who have evolved for Wisconsin (23-11), which under coach Bo Ryan is making a 15th straight NCAA tournament appearance. Wisconsin won seven games against teams ranked in the top 15, including Michigan and Indiana in the Big Ten tournament, and Ryan was named the Big Ten coach of the year.
"We've got a team that has grown up that is led by the best coach in the nation," said freshman Sam Dekker. "We have guys that are ripe for the challenge."
That includes Jackson, who has become a go-to guy when a big basket is needed:
— In a 45-44 win over Minnesota, Jackson scored the Badgers' final four points on a pair of jumpers in the closing minutes, including the game-winner with 2.1 seconds left.
— During a double-overtime win over Iowa, Jackson hit a game-tying 3-pointer with 29 seconds left to send the game to overtime.
— In the regular-season finale at Penn State, Jackson buried a 25-foot 3-pointer as time expired to give Wisconsin the 63-60 win.
Jackson has also shown confidence in his abilities when he's been challenged. Two games after his big shot helped beat Iowa, Jackson mismanaged the final 30 seconds of a road game at Minnesota. He tried to make up for it in overtime, but his 3-for-14 shooting performance and three turnovers hurt.
He responded the next game with 10 points against Ohio State and came full circle in Wisconsin's runner-up finish in the Big Ten tournament, averaging a team-best 11 points per game over the three-day run in Chicago.
"I think his personality, swagger and air about him has helped him through times when the going's been rough and he's had to improve," said Gard. "It hasn't always been smooth sailing, but that confidence has carried him through and not allowed him to get down on himself."