By Elan Kane
Special Contributor to CSNChicago.com
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."
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.