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Adam Zagoria covers basketball at all levels. He is the author of two books and an award-winning journalist whose articles have appeared in ESPN The Magazine, SLAM, Sheridan Hoops, Sports Illustrated, Basketball Times and in newspapers nationwide.
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Friday / November 16.
  • Balance of Power Has Shifted to JUCOs from Preps

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    Mike Taylor had it all going for him.

    The 6-foot-4 shooting guard led Brooklyn Boys & Girls to its first New York PSAL championship ever in the spring of 2010, and then signed a National Letter of Intent to Rutgers that September, joining a blockbuster recruiting class for head coach Mike Rice.

    Then the bottom began to fall out.

    “I just stopped working,” he told SNY.tv by phone Tuesday. “I thought I didn’t have to to do school work and stuff like that.”

    BALANCE OF POWER HAS SHIFTED TO JUCOS

    Like many of his peers, Taylor thought a year of prep school could solve his problems.

    He considered Newark NIA Prep and Humble (Texas) Christian Life Center, where former NBA player Rafer Alston is the coach.

    But neither of those options would’ve helped him become college eligible, so after earning his GED, Taylor now finds himself on the campus of Midland (Texas) College.

    “It was a last-minute thing [where] I had to go to junior college,” Taylor said. “The person who was handling my stuff, [AAU coach] Paul Ruddock, he told me. I was going to go to prep school but they told me I couldn’t because you can only take one class [in prep school].”

    Midland features one of the premier junior college basketball programs in the nation, but it’s a long way from Brooklyn.

    “Right now I’m just looking at a lot of dirt,” Taylor said by phone from his dorm room. “A lot of campus, a lot of dorms. Nothing’s really open at night. When we’re hungry late-night, there’s only one place [to eat], ‘Whataburger.’ We’ll go there and always just order pizza, chilling in the lobby.”

    Taylor is part of an increasing number of former high school and prep players who must attend junior college instead of prep school because of the NCAA’s 2007 rules on what exactly can be accomplished at prep school.

    Fifth-year seniors are only permitted to attend prep school for one year, to make up one core class. The NCAA also has blacklisted 64 non-eligible prep schools, schools listed on the NCAA Website whose credits are not accepted by NCAA institutions, according to a story in Odessa America Online.

    As a result, the Midland team now also features former Lincoln High standout Darwin “Buddha” Ellis, a onetime St. Francis (N.Y.) commit.

    Drimir Ferugson of Wings Academy and Tauron Bailey of Satellite Academy — both in New York — are at Monroe College in The Bronx. Former Manhattan signee Edson Avila of Brooklyn Thomas Jefferson is on the roster at Seward (KS) Community College. Former Duquesne player Joel “Air Jamaica” Wright, also of Thomas Jefferson, is now at Blinn (Texas) College, as is his former Jefferson teammate Shamel Williams. Christian Gayot, who played at Cardozo High in Queens, is at Missouri State University-West Plains. Dwayne Brunson, also from Cardozo, is at Barton County (KS). Jordan Aaron and Deonte Houston of The Bronx are both at Southeastern Iowa. Trivante Bloodman of New York’s Wadleigh is at Olney (IL) Central. And Dashawn Wiggins, formerly of Wings and Bridgton Academy (Maine) is at Eastern Utah, which also produced current Iona star Mike Glover. 

    “The prep schools are not as strong as they were because you can’t get as much done in a one-year setting,” Whit Lesure, the longtime coach at Bridgton Academy, a prestigious prep school, told SNY.tv. “Regardless of the school, whether it’s a legitimate prep school or not, you can’t do as much.

    “Anyone looking at the landscape would say that in basketball terms, the balance of power has shifted back to the JUCOs, whereas 10 years ago the balance of power had shifted to the preps and the JUCOs were hurting a bit.”

    PREP SCHOOL NO LONGER AN OPTION FOR MANY

    For many years, prep school seemed like the hip, cool option for many high school players who needed to pick up their grade point average, or gain greater exposure on a bigger stage.

    Reputable New England prep schools like Bridgton, Brewster (N.H.) Academy, South Kent (Conn.) and St. Thomas More (Conn.) excelled as more and more top high school players went the prep route.

    Four-year basketball powerhouses like Oak Hill Academy (Va.) and Findlay Prep (Nev.) — — which don’t accept fifth-year players — also regularly sit atop the national rankings.

    “If you’re a good high school player anywhere in New England, it seems to me by looking at the newspaper there’s a chance you’re considering private school,” Lesure said.

    “It’s happened in Maine. It’s all over Connecticut and it’s all over Massachusetts and I’m sure it makes public school coaches uncomfortable.”

    Louisville coach Rick Pitino says responsibility falls on the kids themselves — like Taylor and the others — for failing to take high school seriously.

    “Kids should stop looking for easy way outs,” Pitino told SNY.tv. “By choosing prep schools as a way to defer what they should be doing as freshmen and sophomores in high school, and paying attention as freshmen and sophomore in high schools and getting their grades.

    “They’re all running to prep schools figuring, ‘Oh, they gotta get away from all the distractions.’ They should take care of that as freshmen and sophomores and they wouldn’t all be running away from home.”

    Still, South Kent (Conn.) coach Kelvin Jefferson, a former college coach, said many people are still unaware of the 2007 NCAA changes and are laboring under false impressions about what exactly prep schools can accomplish.

    “These kids need to get the correct information,” said Jefferson, who coaches Providence commit Ricky Ledo, among others.

    “I think a lot of kids and even some adults still believe that kids can come to prep school and take five classes and get five cores and change their transcripts, and that’s not the case anymore.

    “After you graduate from high school, unless you have a documented learning disorder, you can only get one core course. If you do have a documented learning disorder, you can add three.

    “That’s why there’s so many kids even nowadays that are saying, ‘I’m reclassifying to this class and that class.’ You have to graduate in four years. I think it’s ignorance that a lot of people just don’t understand the rules and they put themselves in bad situations.

    “For us I would never take a kid that I don’t believe has a chance to qualify.”

    FIVE-YEAR PREP SOLUTION WOULD BE BEST

    Even though the NCAA has cracked down on certain questionable prep schools, Lesure believes their approach is uneven and fails to address the real problems.

    They either don’t have the manpower or they don’t have the interest,” said Lesure, whose current roster includes St. John’s commits Amir Garrett and Darrick Wood and former Hofstra pledge Malik Nichols. “They don’t have [what it takes] to consistently enforce something that makes sense.”

    His solution?

    “Every kid should get a full five years,” he said. “All kids go to private school for five years. Kids get hurt during school. Kids have one bad year in high school.

    “The NCAA should say you have a year window to complete your stuff and gain your eligibility. And if you want to put some distributions in there — like you have to take so many math classes — fine but by this whole four years and eight semesters and one more as a postgrad and three more if you’re ‘LD,’ they [messed] it up big time.”

    He added: “They really could’ve done something better that really reflects what goes on in education, and would be easier to monitor.

    “And then you go look at the places and say is this place a school or not? Make it clear, make it reasonable and make it enforceable.”

    Lesure said his other solution would be to let colleges take whomever they want and let the leagues deal with any academic index issues, like the Ivy league.

    “Thus, the NCAA empowers member institutions to be the responsible ones,” Lesure said.

    JUCOS BENEFITTING FOR NOW

    Some student-athletes, like former St. John’s signee JaKarr Sampson, have opted to return for a postgraduate, or second, year at prep school.

    After the NCAA ruled him and two other St. John’s frosh ineligible, the 6-8 Sampson is back at Brewster Academy for a second season, as is his teammate Mitch McGary, one of the most highly recruited big men in the Class of 2012.

    “[Brewster coach] Jason [Smith] has gone to a few more two-year kids,” Lesure said. “That’s what happened in the prep school world. Since you can’t get as much done in one year then you’ll do it in more than one year.”

    Yet others, like Taylor, were forced to go the JUCO route.

    Brock Erickson, assistant coach at nationally ranked Monroe College, understands there can be a stigma associated with junior colleges, especially in the New York/New Jersey area.

    But he believes two years at a junior college can prepare players like Taylor for the Division 1 ranks.

    “I think junior college helps student-athletes because it prepared them to step in right away at the four-year level after two years, whereas many incoming [college] freshman go to NCAA schools unprepared, which has resulted in 40 percent of all college basketball players transferring by the end of their sophomore season,” Erickson wrote in an email. “Combine that with the number of coaching changes, especially in the NY/NJ area, and it is challenging to find players that have been at one institution and played for one coach for their four-year career.

    “In today’s game, kids want instant gratification.  They want to play right away.  Competing for playing time against juniors and seniors that have been in a four-year school system is difficult.  In junior college, players can have an impact their first year while practicing and competing against Division 1 talent every day. Junior college teaches kids the responsibilities of what will be demanded of them when they go to a four-year institution.”

    Taylor agrees.

    “I think it’s better because you’re playing against better competition and against D-1 players,” he said.

    Beginning this year, any player competing in the National Junior College Athletic Association (NJCAA) must have a high school diploma or GED; grades and test scores are never an issue until the athlete comes to campus, according to the Odessa America Online. Once on campus, JUCO athletes only need to maintain a 2.0 GPA while carrying 12 credit hours per term.

    In the old days, some athletes played junior college basketball without a high school degree. Most JUCO players graduated from high school and did not qualify because of low standardized test scores or not enough core classes.

    Still, Alif Muhammad of NIA Prep cited former Seton Hall guard and NIA graduate Keon Lawrence, who failed to graduate from his regular high school before getting a degree from NIA, as an example of someone who benefitted by not going to junior college.

    “Keon Lawrence…would never be able to matriculate at a JUCO,” Muhammad said in his press release. “But because of the support and resources of a Division I Seton Hall University and University of Missouri, he was able to obtain his College Degree.”

    Midland coach Chris Craig, formerly Mike Glover’s coach at Eastern Utah, believes Taylor  can graduate from the school in two years and said, “He’s off to a good start.”

    From where he sits, far away from Brooklyn and the bright lights of the Big East, Taylor understands the path he’s taken and says he’s accepted it and ready to do what it takes.

    “I just gotta deal with it,” he said. “I’m not crazy about it. I got a new slate. I should be good.”

    (Taylor photo courtesy Daily News)

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    Adam Zagoria is a Basketball Insider who covers basketball at all levels. A contributor to The New York Times and SportsNet New York (SNY), he is also the author of two books and is an award-winning journalist and filmmaker. His articles have appeared in ESPN The Magazine, SLAM, Sheridan Hoops, Basketball Times and in newspapers nationwide. He also won an Emmy award for his work on the SNY mini-documentary on Syracuse guard Tyus Battle. A veteran Ultimate Frisbee player, he has competed in numerous National and World Championships and, perhaps more importantly, his teams won the Westchester Summer League (WSL) championships in 2011 and 2013. He lives in Manhattan with his wife and children.