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The Rise of UNO’s Zach Jackson

The trumpet herald didn’t sound when Zach Jackson signed his letter of intent to play basketball at the University of Nebraska Omaha. There wasn’t a media day with hats on a table or commitment videos shared thousands of times on Twitter. Jackson was simply a recruit, as described by UNO head coach Derrin Hansen, who was promised nothing.

Most recruiting services barely noticed his signing. One website had Jackson listed as a two-star prospect but had him ranked 10th out of 10 prospects in Kansas. Another didn’t even list him at all.

The unheralded 17-year-old left Wichita for Omaha nonetheless. His early days on campus weren’t the stuff of dreams unless they’re bad dreams.

Photo courtesy of University of Nebraska Omaha.

“I’ll still be having nightmares about those first summer workouts,” Jackson said. “I was calling my mom, like, I don’t know if this is for me.”

Jackson wasn’t the only one who wasn’t sure if he was ready to make the leap. Hansen said that he initially planned to redshirt Jackson, mostly due to the player’s youth. “He was only supposed to be a senior in high school,” Hansen said.

Just about then, after summer workouts and leading up to the start of the season, is when the doubts from both sides began to subside. Jackson had found a way to push through the doubts. “My mom told me, I ain’t paying for college no other way. So, you got to stay,” Jackson said with a modest chuckle.

Photo courtesy of University of Nebraska Omaha

Hansen, too, became convinced. “All he does is work. All he does is compete. All he does is the things you ask.” Jackson would start the first game of his career.

It might sound like a short ride from unheralded recruit to D-I starter as a freshman. But there was plenty of work in between. “From practices to individual workouts to walking into your office at 7:00 am and he’s already got a sweat up because he’s been working out the shooting machine down in the gym,” Hansen said. “That’s who he is.”

Jackson’s first collegiate start doesn’t offer up a juicy stat line. He went 1-4 shooting and 2-2 from the line for a total of 4 points. It’s that one field goal that stands out. Not because of who the Mavericks were playing (UC-Santa Barbara). It’s not even because of Jackson’s story. It’s when and where he made that shot.

Jackson’s first basket as a Maverick was the first made shot in the newly-opened Baxter Arena. The foundation of the University’s push toward D-I prominence was, and perhaps still is, invested in the concrete and steel of that building. Jackson etched his name into its walls on his first attempt.

The etching grows deeper with every passing year. Jackson, coming off an All-Summit League junior campaign, is still improving. His scoring average has improved each year, from 3.5 as a freshman, to 10.8 as a sophomore, and 17.6 last season.

His game has grown, and he’s not the same skinny kid who showed up on campus too young to buy a ticket to an R-rated movie. Jackson is a leader now and he knows it.

“Now I’ve got to be that guy. Every day you have to come in ready to go. They’re all looking to you to bring energy every day,” he said.

Hansen can appreciate Jackson’s impact. “He means everything. He epitomizes what you’re trying to get to,” Hansen said. “He will be a special one here for sure because of what he’s done, what he represents, and how he’s done it.”

Photo courtesy of University of Nebraska Omaha

Jackson has passed the 1,000-point mark for his career and ranks among UNO’s top 20 scorers of all time. But team goals have eluded so far. Jackson wants one last shot at a Summit League tournament championship. “We’re just trying to be the foundation for success as a basketball program, “Jackson said.

Not bad for a two-star recruit. Or a no-star, depending on who you ask.

Truly, the prognosticators must get forgiveness here. They couldn’t crawl inside Jackson’s head and understand the determination he’s shown throughout his career.

Forgiveness aside, the recruiting services were wrong.

Of the nine players ranked ahead of Jackson in that 2015 recruiting class, none is scoring more than his 19.4 points per game in 2018-19. Jackson’s career average of 11.4 points per game sits just a tick behind the highly-touted Kansas State forward, Dean Wade. Wade, another Wichita native, has averaged 11.9 points in his career.

Jackson’s herald may not have sounded when he stepped on campus, but perhaps it’s better this way. It’s the way he wants it.

“I want to go out and have everybody know that I love playing for Omaha. I gave it my all for Omaha.”

Watch UNO basketball this season on YurView Omaha (Cox Ch. 1013) – Starting Wednesday, January, 2nd at 7:00pm CST (NDSU vs. Omaha).