For some local athletes, road to D1 goes right through junior college

Loyola guard Tyson Smith, middle, waits for a free throw in a game against Bradley on Jan. 25. Smith transferred from a junior college two years ago. (Elan Kane/MEDILL)

For some local athletes, road to D1 goes right through junior college

By Elan Kane
Special Contributor to

Loyola guard Tyson Smith had been playing basketball for years, but nothing prepared him for that practice.

It was his first at the College of Southern Idaho, one of the top junior college teams in the country, and it was, according to Smith, one of the hardest practices of his life. But Smith knew that playing in junior college was all part of his transition from playing basketball in high school to now playing for a Division I program.

"Don't get me wrong, I've been through some intense workouts, but the level and intensity and the demand [in junior college] was way higher than what I was used to," Smith said. "Once it grew on me, I felt like I elevated my game and my mental aspect of the game as well."

Smith is one of 16 current men's and women's players from the five Chicago-area Division I college basketball programs — Northwestern, DePaul, Loyola, University of Illinois at Chicago and  Chicago State — who have transferred from a National Junior College Athletic Association school.

Basketball transfers from junior college is not a new development – NBA players like Jimmy Butler, Dennis Rodman and Nate Archibald all attended junior college at some point in their careers – but the trend is continuing locally at a steady rate.

Playing at a junior college is an option for many athletes who want to play basketball after high school but may not have the necessary tools to play Division I.

"I had Division II and Division III offers out of high school but I felt to myself I could play at a higher level, I could play Division I basketball," said Loyola forward Aundre Jackson. "Some of the people around me were telling me JUCO is bad because most people go to JUCO and they get in trouble and what-not. But I knew that if I went to JUCO, I was on a mission to get to where I knew I could play."

Jackson decided to attend McLennan Community College in Waco, Texas, where he averaged 14.7 points and 6.8 rebounds per game. His play at McLennan impressed such Division I programs as Arkansas State, Cleveland State and Stephen F. Austin State, and he ultimately landed at Loyola, where he was recently named to the Missouri Valley Conference All-Newcomer team.

Smith had a similar success story. For Smith, junior college was a natural step between high school and Division I.

"When I went to junior college, I got exposed to college as a freshman in high-level basketball and I had to step up and really work on my body, work on my game and adjust to it," Smith said. "When I ended up going to Division I, I felt like I was more prepared."

Smith said his experience in junior college also helped him realize the importance of practice before games. He developed a routine of when he would wake up before a practice, when he would arrive at the gym and how long it would take to get prepared mentally for a practice.

"I feel like moving forward from junior college to Division I, practice is more crucial than games because it's your preparation that really matters," Smith said. "Many coaches will tell you the game is not won on game day, it's really the preparation in the days before the game."

Read the full story at Medill Reports Chicago.

CSN Chicago, in partnership with Northwestern University,  features journalism by students in the graduate program at Medill School of Journalism. The students are reporters for Medill News Service. Medill faculty members edit the student work. Click here for more information about Medill.

Say it ain't so: DePaul commit Tyger Campbell reopens recruitment


Say it ain't so: DePaul commit Tyger Campbell reopens recruitment

It looks like it was too good to be true.

Tyger Campbell shocked the recruiting world when he committed to DePaul on May 8.

Less than four months later, Campbell has reopened his recruitment.

The four-star point guard out of La Lumiere High School in Indiana, who is the No. 66 prospect in the 2018 Class, took to Twitter Friday night to explain his decision.

One of Campbell's original draws to the Blue Demons was DePaul hiring Shane Heirman as an assistant coach. Heirman coached Campbell for two seasons at La Lumiere.

"I like DePaul and honestly my coach (Shane Heirman) just went there and we have a great connection and he's always had my back," Campbell told when he committed to the Blue Demons. "I like [DePaul] coach Dave Leitao, too. I like his program and he's an intelligent guy."

Campbell currently has offers from a handful of D1 schools, including Illinois, Michigan State, Ole Miss, Purdue, SMU, Memphis and Tennessee.

Upset alert? Why a confident UIC is challenging juggernaut Kentucky


Upset alert? Why a confident UIC is challenging juggernaut Kentucky

On the heels of a 12-win improvement, UIC basketball is riding confidently into the new season. 

And why shouldn't they be? Head coach Steve McClain returns a young, talented nucleus that's expected to challenge for a Horizon League championship and NCAA Tournament berth. 

In fact, the program is in such good shape that they thought: Let's play Kentucky. 

Yup, that's right. The UIC Flames will match up with the Kentucky Wildcats at Rupp Arena on Nov. 26, a necessary stage in development, according to McClain. 

“Every year you build your program, there’s steps you have to take," McClain said. "When we got the opportunity to go to Kentucky, I think that’s the next level of exposure for our program.

"When you're chasing trying to be great, you gotta show your kids and show people what greatness looks like. I don't think anyone can argue what Kentucky has done, so I want to put our kids in that environment so they see what it is." 

The contrast between programs is severe. UIC hasn't made an NCAA Tournament since 2004. The Wildcats have made 11 since then. UIC has never advanced out of the first round at the Big Dance. Kentucky has eight National Championships. 

Even this upcoming season, as the Flames boast one of their most skilled teams in school history, none of them were ever touted like Kentucky's freshman class, which ranks No. 2 in the nation per ESPN. 

But the disparities in past successes don't seem to bother UIC. Instead, players, who were likely snubbed by bigger schools in recruitment, are excited about the opportunity to compete on a national stage that the Flames rarely see. 

“First I was like, ‘It’s about time we got someone like (Kentucky) on our schedule,’" said center Tai Odiase, one of the few seniors on the roster. "We’ve been trying to play bigger teams to showcase what we’re made of."

“I don’t see why you go into a place like that without a chip on your shoulder. You don’t go in there just to play basketball, we’re trying to win."

UIC will be heavy, heavy underdogs. There's no way around that. But there are certain spots where they may not be at such a disadvantage. 

On the defensive end, Odiase continued to terrorize guards and big men alike, finishing fifth in the NCAA with 2.9 blocks per game. The dynamic guard duo from "The Six," Godwin Boahen and Marcus Ottey, are quick enough to hang and both took a huge step down the stretch last season. Then there's the return of 2015-2016 Horizon League Newcomer of the Year Dikembe Dixson, who is recovering from a torn ACL.

"The doctors at times thought he was a freak of nature because he was back as quick as he was," McClain said.  

Still, it's a tune-up game for Kentucky, who also scheduled Kansas, UCLA and Louisville on their non-conference slate. But one team's expected walk through is another team's vital experience. 

"Our guys can walk in and see that on a given night, you can compete with anyone," McClain said. 

Given new athletic director Garrett Klassy's comments at his introductory press conference, it doesn't seem as if games like this are a one-hit wonder for UIC. 

“I am an aggressive scheduler," Klassy said. "I helped with the scheduling at George Washington. We’ll play anyone, anytime, anywhere.

"You want to measure yourself against the best. We have a lot of returning starters. It’ll be nice to go on the road, play a tough game and maybe sneak out an upset."