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.

DePaul athletic director Jean Lenti Ponsetto retiring after 18 years at helm


DePaul athletic director Jean Lenti Ponsetto retiring after 18 years at helm

DePaul athletic director Jean Lenti Ponsetto informed the university she will retire in the coming months after 18 years at the helm. 

"It truly has been our privilege and the honor of a lifetime to serve DePaul as athletic director and to witness the unprecedented growth from that  ‘little school under the el’ to its current world class University serving students from around the globe," Ponsetto said in a statement.

“The changing times over these past few months has led me to this decision. Having successfully battled two breast cancer diagnoses and currently in treatment for a third, I thought it was time to step away from the long days, working every weekend and the 24/7 demands that being an athletic director requires."

Ponsetto has been a member of DePaul's athletic department since 1974, when she was a four-sport athlete (tennis, volleyball, basketball, softball). After graduating in 1978, she became DePaul's first assistant women's basketball coach. She later spent seven years as the senior associate athletic director before taking over as AD in 2002.

Ponsetto guided DePaul into the Big East from Conference USA in 2003 and helped organize the new Big East in 2013. She oversaw the development of Wintrust Arena, now home to the basketball teams after decades of playing at the Allstate Arena in Rosemont.

The women's team has made 17 straight NCAA tournaments under head coach Doug Bruno. The men's team hasn't made the tournament since 2004 and has just two winning seasons since (2006-07, 2018-19). Ponsetto has hired three coaches in that span: Jerry Wainwright, Oliver Purnell and Dave Leitao — who is in his second stint as head coach.

The NCAA put DePaul's men's basketball program on probation for three years last summer due to a recruiting violation, of one two controversies to surround the athletic department in recent years. In April, a sports psychologist formerly affiliated with DePaul filed a lawsuit claiming she was terminated after raising concerns of former softball coach Eugene Lenti's abusive behavior towards players. Lenti is Lenti Ponsetto's brother.

Ponsetto will stay in her role and assist DePaul in its transition to a new AD. The university plans to conduct a national search for her replacement this summer.

NCAA to allow student-athletes to make money off name, image, likeness

NCAA to allow student-athletes to make money off name, image, likeness

The NCAA still won’t be paying its players, but it will allow student-athletes to receive endorsements from third-parties.

The governmental body for college athletics has long been a strong proponent of its athletes being amateurs, but this marks a drastic change in that, even if the schools won’t be allowed to pay the athletes directly. The NCAA’s Board of Governors met this week and supported the changes with some caveats.

“While student-athletes would be permitted to identify themselves by sport and school, the use of conference and school logos, trademarks or other involvement would not be allowed,” a press release from the NCAA read. “The board emphasized that at no point should a university or college pay student-athletes for name, image and likeness activities.”

The rule changes aren’t officially in place and must be implemented by the three divisions of college athletics that fall under the NCAA. The next step is for each division to make the actual rules the board of governors supported. The goal is for that to be in place in January and to take effect for the 2021-22 school year.

“The board’s action is the latest step by the Association to support college athletes and modernize its rules regarding name, image and likeness,” the press release read.

The process for this started back in October and has remained on track for January 2021. 

Maybe the next time a player like Zion Williamson gets hurt busting his shoe open on the court, he can switch shoe companies and make some money off it?