Making the jump

Everyone knows college basketball players can jump.So much of hoops is played in the air. Rebounds, dunks, fadeaways, shot blocking – the list goes on. And for the most part, leaping ability seems to be one thing that most Division I ball players have got figured out.

But there’s jumping . and then there’s the Jump. And for all the complexities inherent in the game of basketball, nothing may be more difficult for young men and women to understand than that one Jump: moving from high school to college ball.

Mind over muscle

Allen Taylor, freshman center on the men’s basketball team, said switching to NCAA hoops isn’t as much about talent as it is attitude.

“If you don’t have a strong mind . some people don’t even make it,” Taylor said. “But you got to come in with the right mindset, knowing that you’re not the best, knowing that these people are here to teach you, and you got a lot to learn if you’re going to be a good player.”

But while such an approach is admittedly to an incoming player’s benefit, Taylor said, that perspective is not all that common.

“I thought I was ready to play (in high school),” Taylor said. “But I really didn’t have to do anything. That’s what I realize now. I thought I was doing a lot, but when I got here, it’s much harder to score, much harder to get a rebound. All these guys are in good shape. I realize that now.”

Men’s basketball head coach Neil Dougherty said some young players learn quickly they have been relying on abilities that are not as unique in higher levels of basketball.

“What you find is the most athletic kids in high school are going to find ways to get the jobs done,” Dougherty said, “but maybe it didn’t include a basketball skill. Instead of handling the ball right, I just ran by you. Now, when you have athleticism becoming much more equal at the collegiate level, and you don’t handle the ball well, then you’re not going to be able to take it with you where you want to go.”

Leveling the score

This significant increase in parity results in an equally obvious drop in statistical performance as well, Dougherty said. While some athletes’ high school numbers look great on paper, they are usually put into perspective when tested against collegiate competition.

“I nicely say it with our players — they’ve heard me say this before – ‘You averaged 30-some points a game, 17 rebounds and 10 assists against really good girls,'” Dougherty said. “Because most of the time you take the floor, whether you’re from New York City or . from a small town in the Midwest, there’s a better than 85 percent chance that you’re the best player on the court. You don’t really get the resistance that you’re going to get everyday in practice (at college.)”

Freshman 15 . or 50

That same necessary level of competition can put a significant amount of wear and tear on young, inexperienced players, however. Taylor said this year forced him to not only change his game, but his look as well.

“It’s way different; you got to be in college shape over high school shape,” Taylor said. “It took me a while. I lost 50 pounds, but I’m still actually getting in shape. Eventually I think I’ll be ready to go.”

Dougherty said having an older, more mature frame is a large advantage for young men trying to reach Division I, and since even a single year of development can result in drastic physical change, players who spend a year either red-shirted or in a preparatory school are sometimes more ready to make an instant impact.

“When you talk about just the basketball side of it,” Dougherty said, “the first thing you notice in most times – not all the times, but most times – is a much more physically capable body, either in terms of whether it be in the weight room or on the court.”

Making the jump – twice

But an extra year between high school and college basketball has other, less physically oriented positives. Dougherty said basketball players who live at another location before committing to Division I schools have also already been exposed to the mental rigors of competitive hoops.

“It seems that the further that you get away from – and this may not be the best example – the parental influence, kids can be pushed more, and they grow and mature more,” Dougherty said. “They have decided that they’re pretty serious about it; it’s not that ‘I’m just playing high school basketball because three of my buddies are.’ You’ve eliminated that element, so they’re stronger and they’ve been pushed.”

Some players end up further from “parental influence” than others. TCU’s Femi Ibikunle, a junior forward from Nigeria, said the transition to American basketball was just as difficult as the Division I jump.

“There is a difference between the skill levels here because most of the kids that start basketball here start at age 3, 4, 5,” Ibikunle said. “But back home, we start at maybe like 14, 15, 16, so you have to go over, and your coach wants you to learn how to dribble, how to play post . you have to learn how to do everything in like a month.”

Great expectations

Sometimes, however, young men and women – both foreign and domestic – excel so much at lower-level programs that they build a reputation of greatness that can lead to unfair expectations. Taylor said even he felt the heat as an incoming scholarship freshman.

“I know when I was here it was a big pressure,” Taylor said. “I didn’t know if I was going to be ready to play at this level. It got hard and I wanted to quit at the beginning, but I talked to (my teammates) and they said ‘you’ll make it through this, and once you get through this, it’ll be better.”

But even Dougherty said some of his colleagues may be part of the problem.

“Everyone is guilty of doing it,” Dougherty said, “whether you’re the media, family member, a high school coach or a coach that’s trying to win a kid over in a recruiting battle. And then when those things are said . and they go into print, there’s only one person who has to live up to it.