Jeff Caldwell was driving on the road and taking a ride down memory lane all at the same time the other day. The conversation was about junior college basketball. The question was about his fondest memories of what could be considered the glory days.
|Steve Francis' career lifted off at a JC. (Getty Images)|
Back then, Caldwell was an assistant at Northwest Community College in Senatobia, Miss. The Rangers had produced a fine season, and they were rewarded with a trip to Hutchinson, Kan., and berth into the National Junior College Athletic Association (NJCAA) Tournament.
"The first night we beat Steve Francis' team and sent them home, and the second night we beat Shawn Marion's team and sent them home," said Caldwell, now the head coach NWCC. "So I don't know if that was when junior college basketball peaked. But it was awfully good that year."
This year, not so much. And if you're looking for something to blame, look no further than any of the shady prep schools NCAA president Myles Brand has labeled "diploma mills" and vowed to shut down. If and when he accomplishes that feat, a huge round of applause will echo from virtually every two-year institution in the nation.
That's when junior college basketball will thrive again.
"The NCAA's crackdown on prep schools is going to have a huge effect on junior college basketball," said John Dillard, editor of the Southwest Hoops Report and the man who ranks the top 100 junior college players each year at JucoJunction.com. "Trust me, those of us in the juco scene are excited because the rising of prep schools in the past five or six years was by far the worst thing that ever happened to junior college basketball."
Used to be high school prospects had two basic options. They could go to a four-year school or a two-year school. The four-year schools were reserved for the best talents. The two-year schools were reserved for lesser players, or great talents with questionable grades. And that's pretty much how things worked.
"If you were really close on your core classes and really close on your standardized test score but not quite there, then you might go to prep school to try to improve a little academically," Dillard said. "But if God and everybody else knew you had no chance of qualifying you'd just go juco. It was understood."
Nobody seems exactly certain when this changed or who was responsible -- though I'll lay 2:1 odds it was a really clever Division I coach -- but at some point what was considered understood came under scrutiny. The debate and subsequent sales pitch probably went like this:
Why lose two years before going to State U if you don't have to? Why waste half your eligibility playing in front of crowds of 75 in glorified high school gyms? Instead, go to prep school where you and 11 other 6-7 wings can study and dunk together in a small building with your teacher/coach. Sound like a plan?
Of course, it sounded like a plan. A good plan. An easy plan. So kids started failing classes or holding themselves back, and coaches even developed a cool term for it. They called it "reclassifying." Because really, what sounds better, that Jimmy Jumper "failed" his junior year or that he opted to "reclassify" as a junior? It's not even close, is it? Reclassify. That's a nice term.
Anyway, prospects started reclassifying. Next thing you know, guys who were originally Class of 2003 recruits were suddenly Class of 2004 recruits, and though they had nothing close to a transcript capable of getting them into a Division I school, they largely ignored the junior college opportunity.