By Conor Gereg
When poet Robert Frost wrote about the road less traveled, a path neither gilded nor worn by the masses, perhaps he was alluding to the non-conventional route taken by some basketball’s top talent en route to the sport’s largest stages.
Commonly college basketball’s biggest names find their high school years chronicled by national recruiting databases, paired with gigabytes of streaming highlight reels and headline magazine covers. There’s never a shortage of coverage for the game’s most heralded incoming high school and prep school players.
For some, however, there’s another road toward college basketball stardom. Junior College.
Jimmy Butler, Mitch Richmond, Cedric Ceballos, Steve Francis, Rafer Alston, Dennis Rodman, Carl Landry, Jae Crowder, “Tiny” Archibald, Bob McAdoo, Ben Wallace, Artis Gilmore, Larry Johnson, Spencer Haywood, Shawn Marion, Sam Cassell, Moose Blaylock. The list of impact NBA stars, past, present, and even enshrined Hall of Famers, is nothing short of substantial. The Junior College route is a path that is proven, time tested and often overlooked and it’s about to be even more unheralded.
Across the United States, there are 525 Junior Colleges* playing in 24 geographically partitioned regions across three divisions. Much like NCAA athletics, the NJCAA offers tiered levels of scholarship and athletic support for student-athletes. In most cases, the tenure of a Junior College athlete is just two years, allowing student-athletes an opportunity to showcase their abilities, both athletically and academically, and for some, then transitioning to the NCAA level for their remaining eligibility.
Each year America’s Junior Colleges produce players that play significant roles in the tapestry of each year’s college basketball season but recent changes in immediate transfer eligibility could cloud the role JuCo’s play as a feeder system. To put this issue in clearest of terms: Today’s high major college coaches can now replenishing graduating talent from the lower levels of Division I, filling their roster with players who have already proven they can play at the game’s most challenging level. With these new transfer guidelines in place, it begs the question–why would today’s coaches bother recruiting high school prospects or junior college stars when they can simply amass talent from the lower levels of Division I?
“I envision the new transfer guidelines slowing down the recruitment of JuCo players,” Jason Owens, an assistant at Missouri State-West Plains told College Hoops Digest. “I think that our guys will still get recruited but they will take a backseat to more experienced DI players from the transfer portal.”
Owens’ program perennially produces both wins and premier talent, annually feeding Division I’s top programs but there are challenges ahead with the modern reliance on the transfer portal.
“It’s an easier sell when a guy at any level of DI has hard statistics and has played a year of the ball [at Division I]” Owens said. From the 2020 Junior College rankings, Missouri State-West Plains produced 6’6” guard Sardaar Calhoun, the 3rd ranked transfer in his class according to 247. While playing for MSWP Calhoun received offers from some of the nation’s top programs, schools like Seton Hall, Illinois, and LSU before ultimately signing with Florida State. Calhoun transferred to Texas Tech earlier this month.
For some programs, the NCAA’s spring ruling on player movement has already been felt. Although transferring has always existed, a mandated “redshirt” season deterred many from executing a campus change. Today, the game’s heavyweight programs can now acquire talent from the middle and lower tiers of Division I and do so with immediate player eligibility, in turn, shutting out opportunities previously reserved for Junior College stars.
“[It’s] already had a noticeable impact on the recruitment of JuCo players. It’s been much more difficult for kids to get the looks that they should and would be getting in a normal year,” Western Nebraska assistant Isaac Lu told us. Lu’s Western Nebraska team has seen its share of players successfully jump to Division I, including the 5th, ranked JuCo prospect in 2020 according to 247 sports, Teddy Allen. Allen signed with Fred Hoiberg and Nebraska and then transferred to New Mexico State following his time at Western Nebraska.
“Most DI programs are looking towards the transfer portal for players rather than JuCo,” Lu said. “It’s left the recruitment of some top JuCo talent wide open, and in a sense, the D1 teams who look JuCo may even have a greater opportunity to get some of these kids simply because of this.”
Opportunity may be the operative word when scouting the Junior College landscape, a talent pool that some see as nearly equal to many Division I programs.
Eric Murphy, the 4th year head coach at Florida SouthWestern, perhaps one of the NJCAA’s most dominant programs, sees the Division I transfer portal as a challenge but not necessarily a barrier to what his players crave most.
“Players come here for exposure. Our players get seen and sign with the best programs in the nation, Alabama, Colorado, LSU, etc.,” Murphy told us. “Our program produces some of the best talents in the nation and they know they’ll be seen here by the top D1 schools in the country. Exposure is everything.”
Exposure and unprecedented levels of success (77-10 in the previous 3 seasons) are easy selling points for Murphy and his staff who see the team’s annual roster as “better than some Division I programs.” Murphy wasn’t being hyperbolic when he spoke over the phone to College Hoops Digest; his team’s talent base is bursting at the seams as his Bucs have produced 18 Division I players in the previous 3 years, 26 in the previous 5 years. Even more impressive is that 7 of his former players suited up for teams in March’s NCAA tournament.
While some utilize the Junior College route for exposure, others use their time playing in the NJCAA as a place for development.
“Often, the average fan may wrongly assume that all of our student-athletes are here for academic reasons,” Brandon Giles, the Head Coach at Polk State in Winter Haven, Florida told us. “We’ve had success with high school students who were qualified, like Clarence Jackson (6th ranked JuCo prospect in 2020, per 247) who left after a year at Polk to go to Wichita State, or a transfer like Jordan Preaster who moved on to North Florida after one year. Our players have done extremely well in the classroom, on the court, and participate in community outreach.”
Giles and Polk State understand that his players need a wide range of skills for his student-athletes to jump to Division I. In other words, it’s not just talent that Division I coaches crave but rather a student-athlete that’s equipped in all areas of life to make the jump.
“Our staff will continue to bring in quality student-athletes, and the NCAA DI and DII coaches always want individuals who are from winning programs, been battle-tested, and who can handle themselves off the court and in the classroom.”
The demands of a college athlete are intensive and the pool of players for high major programs to pull from has swelled amid an era of free agency-style player movement. Because of this, top programs can be even more selective with incoming talent. Western Nebraska’s Isaac Lu, among many other JuCo coaches, noted the invaluable element of added maturity and experience that commonly characterize those who play at the NJCAA level.
“Kids who come to JuCo are looking for opportunity. An opportunity to play, an opportunity to set their academics straight, an opportunity to elevate their game to the next level,” Lu said. “Many of them have already gone through a great deal of adversity throughout their lives and I wholeheartedly believe that JuCo is such a valuable stepping stone for them to develop not only as student-athletes but also as people.”
“The journey for each guy is different,” said Missouri State’s Jason Owens. “We had a player this year who hadn’t played in two years due to life circumstances out of high school. He played well and will have opportunities to play at the next level beyond here. Every athlete has a story at this level, each one with different layers than the other.”
The Junior College path may not produce the fanfare or television ratings of Division I’s upper reaches but, for most players, it’s more than just another chance at a Division I scholarship.
“We have [former] DI guys that want to get to a higher level of DI, guys who played at one JuCo and didn’t have the success they envisioned and need a clean slate. There are so many variables and factors to it,” Owens added. “Each guy has a story—all of which end up becoming inspiring.”
*Not part of the NJCAA is the California Community College Athletic Association, a mega-conference with 108 schools that operate outside of the 525 NJCAA.