Juco transfers in the spotlight
A few weeks ago -- while the rest of their classmates were on fall break -- members of the Marquette basketball team rode a battered yellow school bus without air-conditioning to a secluded campground in the Wisconsin wilderness.
No cellphone service. No televisions or high-end meals. Just hours and hours of workouts and conditioning drills. Some vacation.
"It's boot camp," head coach Buzz Williams said. "It's not supposed to be easy."
As taxing as the weekend may have been for some of Marquette's younger players, standouts such as Jae Crowder and Darius Johnson-Odom probably weren't as bothered. The twosome got used to "roughing it" years ago.
Not at Marquette -- but in junior college.
Williams said Crowder and Johnson-Odom's blue-collar backgrounds are one of the main things that drew him to the players in the first place. "Most junior college players have had a one- or two-year delay in their dream," Williams said. "Anytime there's a delay in someone's dream, their hunger and their fight to accomplish that dream is heightened."
Marquette made the Sweet 16 last season largely because of the play of former junior college stars Crowder, Johnson-Odom, Jimmy Butler and Dwight Buycks. This season, other schools are hoping to emulate the Golden Eagles' success.
New coaches such as Lon Kruger (Oklahoma) and Billy Gillispie (Texas Tech) will lean heavily on junior college transfers as they attempt to rebuild downtrodden programs. Nurideen Lindsey will try to bring some stability to a young St. John's squad and, at USC, center Dewayne Dedmon is being hailed as a future first-round NBA draft pick before he's ever played a Division I game.
"He'll be phenomenal in two years," Trojans coach Kevin O'Neill said. "Problem is, I'm not sure we'll have him that long."
No junior college transfer, however, is being counted on as heavily as Baylor's Pierre Jackson, who will likely start at point guard for one of the nation's most talented teams. If last year's national junior college player of the year lives up to his accolades, Baylor could win its first conference title since 1950 and contend for the Final Four. If he underachieves, the Bears' backcourt could cost them an NCAA tournament berth for the second straight season.
"I'm used to pressure," Jackson said. "I don't see it as a big burden. I think I'll be just fine."
The odds aren't in his favor.
For every junior college player who experiences high-level success with a Division I program, there are hundreds of others who don't.
Glance at the NJCAA's list of first-team All-Americans the last few seasons, and it's difficult to find players who went on to make significant contributions to teams from BCS leagues. Crowder, Johnson-Odom and Ricardo Ratliffe (Missouri) were solid in 2010. Casey Mitchell was part of West Virginia's Final Four squad the year before, and Derwin Kitchen arrived at Florida State in 2008.
There are always exceptions but, for the most part, teams that contend for league titles feature very few -- if any -- junior college players in their rotation.
Some have a history of academic struggles, while character issues hover over the heads of others. And then there are those who just aren't very good. "Typically," UCLA coach Ben Howland said, "high-major programs with strong academics don't take a lot of junior college guys."
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But sometimes coaches don't have any choice, which is why Howland signed juco transfer Lazeric Jones after point guard Jrue Holiday unexpectedly entered the NBA draft following his freshman season in 2009. A year later, Howland added another junior college player (De'End Parker) to make up for the surprising departure of Malcolm Lee to the draft. "Most times you sign a junior college player to fill an immediate need," Gillispie said. "When you're evaluating a high school player, you're thinking about what you want your team to look like down the road. So you're recruiting toward your philosophy. "With a junior college guy, you're thinking about what your roster and your team look like at that very moment and how that player can help immediately. So in that case, you're recruiting for a need."
That's why Gillispie signed three junior college players after inheriting a depleted roster at Texas Tech. "They've been in junior college for a reason," Gillispie said of junior college players in general. "They've had some hardships they've had to overcome. They had to get some things straightened out before they got to the next level. They're probably more appreciative than the average player."
And in some cases, their bodies are more mature -- and they're more coachable. "I think junior college totally changed me from a maturity standpoint," Baylor's Jackson said. "My grandma had spoiled me, but being away from home made me realize a lot of things. I became more responsible for everything I did. The two years I spent [at the College of Southern Idaho] definitely helped me. I appreciate everything they did."
Then there are players such as USC's Dedmon, a 7-footer who didn't even play organized basketball until his senior year of high school. Dedmon's mother forbade him from joining the team because she wanted him to spend more time at his church. But once Dedmon turned 18, he joined the squad -- but rarely played -- and then spent two seasons at Antelope Valley College. He gray-shirted the first season while he learned the rules and strategy of the game before averaging 6.6 points and 7.8 rebounds in 2009-10.
Dedmon enrolled at USC in January. He practiced with the team but didn't play. "I feel like I'm really close to 'getting' it," Dedmon said. "I just need to get out there in an actual game and put it all together."
O'Neill is confident he will do just that. Dedmon broke his right shooting hand three days before the start of official practice -- but he has yet to miss a workout rep. Instead, he's learning to shoot left-handed. "It's to the point where he's making 10-foot jump hooks with his left hand," O'Neill said. "He's been unbelievable. He came here with a clean slate. We didn't have to break him of any bad habits. He's been as hard-working a kid as I've ever been around at any level.
"I don't care one bit about where guys are ranked. Some of the highest-rated high school guys end up being busts. Sometimes people doing the rankings see three breakaway dunks and think, 'Oh, my God. That guy is a top-five player.' It's a coach's job to get out there and do the evaluating himself."
When it comes to junior college players, no coach does that better than Marquette's Williams, who is set to begin his fourth season since replacing Tom Crean.
Crowder, the national junior college player of the year in 2010, is a preseason honorable-mention All-Big East pick, and Williams points out that Dwyane Wade is the only player in Marquette history to reach 1,000 career points faster than Johnson-Odom.
Williams' biggest success story, though, is Jimmy Butler, a Texan who was the 82nd-ranked player in the state coming out of high school. "No. 81 went to The Citadel and No. 83 went to Tarleton State," Williams said.
Butler ended up at Tyler Junior College, and he was the first player Williams signed when he got the job. Butler earned his degree last spring and was chosen with the final pick of the first round in the NBA draft, which means he'll receive a guaranteed contract. "Jimmy is the poster child for how you're supposed to transition from a junior college into a school in a BCS league," Williams said.
Granted, much of the credit goes to Williams, who said one of his biggest rules is to recruit from winning programs such as Hutchinson Community College or Indian Hills C.C.
"It helps to have guys that already know how to win," he said.
Williams began his career as a student assistant under the legendary Lewis Orr at Navarro College in Corsicana, Texas. He said his background help him relate to the junior college players he recruits. "I understand where they're coming from," Williams said. "I like the guys that have traveled on 15-passenger vans. I like the guys that per year, have gotten two pairs of shoes and two shirts. I like the guys that, when they eat pregame and postgame meals, it's usually from the same fast-food restaurant at the drive-thru. I respect that.
"There has to be somebody those guys can identify with, whether it's someone like me or, hopefully, one of their own teammates. You've got to have the mechanisms in place for those guys to be successful."
Williams already has a verbal commitment from current standout T.J. Taylor of Paris (Texas) Junior College. Still, as successful as he's been, even Williams has begun to channel most of his efforts toward recruiting high school players.
"I never thought, 'Hey, let's make Marquette junior college central,'" Williams said. "But with the state of our roster when I took over, we felt like it was what we needed to do to continue along the path Coach Crean had established. "If you do things right and do your research, it can definitely work."
Jason King covers college basketball for ESPN.com. The Dallas native lives in Overland Park, Kan.
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