Ranking the 10 Biggest NCAA Basketball JUCO Success Stories of the Past Decade
The early storylines in the college basketball offseason have revolved around big-name recruits choosing their schools and altering the fabric of the upcoming year.
However, for every Andrew Wiggins, there are 10 other hoopsters who take the less glamorous road to their basketball destinations. Junior-college transfers would certainly fit under that less glamorous moniker.
Many JUCO transfers don’t find superstardom at the end of their paths, but there are plenty of success stories to go around. Read on to see 10 of the biggest ones in the past decade.
No. 10: Josh Harrellson
Josh Harrellson does not have the individual numbers that a lot of the other names on this list do, but he was instrumental in helping an under-seeded Kentucky squad pull off some upsets on the way to a Final Four.
Without his great 2011 tournament run, which included an impressive performance against All-American Jared Sullinger in a classic Sweet 16 matchup, the Wildcats would not have advanced nearly as far as they did.
Before Harrellson was a Final Four contributor, though, his college career got off to a rough start. He originally committed to Western Illinois but wanted to play for a high-profile school after a breakout senior season in prep ball. That led to some bad blood with Western Illinois, and Harrellson was forced to play JUCO at Southwestern Illinois College.
Western Illinois’ coach was fired the following year and Harrellson was free to pursue opportunities elsewhere. He ended up at Kentucky and the rest is history.
No. 9: James Ennis
Many junior-college transfers play a season or two at a small program before transferring to a more marquee Division I team. James Ennis played for two separate junior-college programs before ending his career as an integral part of an entertaining Long Beach State squad.
Ennis began at Oxnard College, where he was named to the first-team All-Western State Conference behind nearly 20 points a game. As a sophomore, he attended Ventura College, where he was named first-team All-California Community College Athletic Association and first-team All-WSC.
Ennis then transferred to Long Beach State for two seasons. In his first year, he was a critical contributor on a squad that qualified for the NCAA tournament for only the second time in school history since 1995.
The 49ers didn’t make the tournament in Ennis’ second campaign, but from an individual standpoint he was much more dominant. He scored better than 16 points and grabbed nearly seven rebounds a game. He was also a credible three-point threat and nearly automatic from the charity stripe.
No. 8: Cleanthony Early
Anytime a former junior-college player is a critical piece on a Wichita State team that stuns the college basketball world and makes the Final Four (where it very nearly knocked off eventual national champion Louisville), it is absolutely a success story.
Cleanthony Early was a two-time NJCAA Division III Player of the Year award recipient at Sullivan Community College thanks to his rebounding and scoring prowess. His play earned a scholarship offer to Wichita State, where he will be the best player on a squad coming off an impressive tournament run heading into the 2013-14 season.
Early averaged nearly 14 points, 5.4 rebounds and about a block and steal per game in his lone season thus far as a Shocker. With the roster turnover around him and the experience he now has under his belt, Early will be the team leader next year as Wichita tries to stun college basketball yet again.
No. 7: Darius Johnson-Odom
Between past Big East Player of the Year recipient Jae Crowder, Jimmy Butler and Darius Johnson-Odom, Marquette has done nicely for itself in the junior-college department in the past few years.
Johnson-Odom began his collegiate career at Hutchinson Community College, where he put up dominant numbers on his way to a spot on the NJCAA All-American First Team. His impressive stats caught the eye of Marquette, where he ended up for the rest of his collegiate career.
The highlight of Johnson-Odom’s Golden Eagle tenure from an individual standpoint was when he was given a spot on the All-Big East first team alongside teammate Crowder. That was Johnson-Odom’s final collegiate season, and he averaged 18.3 points a night for Buzz Williams.
That dynamic duo was the primary reason why Marquette was a participant in the Sweet 16 that year. Johnson-Odom averaged 15.7 points in three seasons at Marquette and proved that he was capable of putting up numbers against elite competition, not just at the JuCo level.
No. 6: Marshall Henderson
That’s right, the country’s brashest personality was humbled in JUCO ball before becoming a household name by trolling opposing SEC fanbases and launching approximately 55 shots a game in March.
Henderson may take a lot of shots, but he has also played for a lot of schools. He started at Utah and earned honorable mention All-Mountain West honors, but transferred to Texas Tech after his freshman year. He never actually donned a Red Raider uniform because Pat Knight was fired after the season Henderson was forced to sit out by transfer rules.
Henderson then went to play at South Plains College and led his squad to the junior-college national championship and earned the National Junior College Player of the Year honors.
Henderson is now at Ole Miss and is coming off a season in which he led the SEC in points per game. He may be a lightning-rod player and have a turbulent college career with multiple pit stops, but his story is certainly one of JUCO success.
No. 5: Trevor Mbakwe
Trevor Mbakwe’s 36-year collegiate career included a stop at Miami Dade Community College before he became one of the most feared defenders in the Big Ten (all joking aside, Mbakwe was a college basketball player from 2007-2013).
Mbakwe started at Marquette but transferred to Miami Dade after just one season. At the JUCO level, Mbakwe dominated and helped lead his team to the Southern Conference Championship. He was also given the Southern Conference Player of the Year award thanks to a deadly combination of scoring, rebounding and shot-blocking ability.
Mbakwe then went to Minnesota, and after sitting out a year via redshirt and various time due to injury, he averaged nearly 12 points and 10 rebounds a game in his Golden Gopher career. He also blocked 1.5 shots a night throughout his three years in the Big Ten.
Mbakwe dealt with injury adversity his entire career, and the fact that he was able to establish himself as a success story is a testament to his work ethic and ability.
No. 4: Pierre Jackson
Not many collegiate careers start at the College of Southern Idaho and end on the All-Big 12 First Team, but not many collegiate players are of the caliber of Pierre Jackson.
The Baylor point guard had humble beginnings at Southern Idaho, where he led his squad to the 2011 NJCAA Division I national championship. He was also awarded the NJCAA Division I Player of the Year award.
Jackson transferred to Baylor after two seasons at the JUCO level. In his Bears career, Jackson averaged 16.7 points, 6.5 assists and 1.6 steals a night and was instrumental in Baylor’s Elite Eight appearance in the 2012 NCAA tournament.
His squad didn’t reach the same level of success in his last year on campus, but he certainly did as an individual. He was part of the Big 12’s first team and a Bob Cousy Award finalist and was named the NIT’s Most Outstanding Player. Not bad for someone who started at Southern Idaho.
No. 3: Jae Crowder
It’s not every day that a player who started his collegiate career at Howard College ends up taking home the Big East Player of the Year award in his final season.
That is exactly what happened with Jae Crowder, who helped Howard to its first ever national title in men’s basketball in his only year on the JUCO circuit. He was also awarded with the NJCAA Player of the Year honor.
Crowder then transferred to Marquette, where he played two seasons. In his final year as a Golden Eagle, he won the conference’s MVP award behind 17.5 points, 8.4 rebounds, 2.1 assists, 2.5 steals and one block a night.
Marquette went to the Sweet 16 in both of Crowder’s seasons as well. He is now trying to establish himself in the NBA after an up-and-down rookie campaign for the Dallas Mavericks.
No. 2: Carl Landry
Carl Landry has established himself as a solid NBA player who provides much-needed depth and scoring and rebounding ability. However, before he was a staple on a handful of professional teams, Landry was a post player at small Vincennes University.
Landry was a double-double machine at the JUCO level, which earned him a scholarship offer from Purdue of the Big Ten.
In three years as a Boilermaker, Landry scored better than 18 points and grabbed better than seven rebounds a night. He also shot better than 60 percent from the field and was about as automatic as collegiate post players come at the free-throw line.
Despite Landry’s individual accomplishments, Purdue only made the NCAA tournament once in his three years. Considering the Boilers won seven games in Landry’s first year and nine in his second, it was an impressive turnaround to make the second round in his third. Landry was a primary reason that improvement occurred.
No. 1: Jimmy Butler
Jimmy Butler became a household name this year during the NBA playoffs for his relentless defense on LeBron James and pure will in the face of all the adversity the Chicago Bulls faced in the postseason.
However, there was a time when he was not heavily recruited out of high school and was forced to attend Tyler Junior College in Texas. One season later he transferred to Marquette and was on his way to becoming a defensive staple for one of the NBA’s most storied franchises.
Butler played three years for the Golden Eagles and averaged nearly 16 points a night in his final campaign. He was also a defensive force and helped Marquette on the boards despite his shooting guard and small forward position in the box score.
Butler’s squads made the NCAA tournament in all three of his seasons at Marquette, including a trip to the Sweet 16 in his final year. His pure determination that is evident even today when he takes the floor undoubtedly helped him turn his modest JUCO start to an impressive success story.
Follow college basketball writer Scott Polacek on Twitter @ScottPolacek.