For someone all the way from Cairns in Australia, it was a near perfect start to a college basketball career. Named Southland Conference Freshman of the Year, All-Conference honourable mention and then being named to the All-Tournament team after leading the Roadrunners to the NCAA tournament, it was a truly remarkable effort for any Australian. For 6'8" forward Jeromie Hill, everything was coming together and with it came big expectations.
Hill enjoyed what can only be viewed as a successful sophomore season, however complacency had slowly crept into his mindset. Despite maintaining his statistical performance, he did not progress as much as he would have liked. He set about making amends and put in the hard yards off the court, however as a junior he started off well before a knee injury severely impacted his ability to elevate his game to a new level, ending with a red-shirt senior year.
Damian Arsenis recently caught up with Australian forward Jeromie Hill to discuss his outstanding collegiate career to date, the knee injuries that saw him red-shirt last season, and a season of promise ahead.
Jeromie Hill - Courtesy Jeff Huehn/UTSA Athletics
I had been eagerly anticipating catching up with the talented big man from far North Queensland. It would have been a month or two earlier but for circumstances beyond our control. Thankfully Hill was able to fit me into his busy schedule, one that includes juggling the demands of completing a Master of Business Administration (MBA) with the demands of pre-season training.
"School work and basketball is pretty much taking up all of my time," stated Hill via a pretty good Skype connection.
"I'm doing my MBA with a focus on project management. Three classes is considered full-time, but I'm doing four right now - needless to say that I pretty much got rid of my social life earlier this year."
Hill made the trek from Cairns to the University of Texas - San Antonio (UTSA) via the acclaimed Australian Institute of Sport (AIS). It was his time at AIS playing alongside the likes of current Australian Boomer Ryan Broekhoff (Valparaiso / Besiktas, Turkey) that he decided to head to college.
"I spent a whole year training and playing at the AIS. If I did not select to sign early with UTSA, I would have fielded a lot more offers. I also visited Valparaiso with Ryan (Broekhoff), Utah and Sacramento. All four schools (including UTSA) provided me with solid offers."
With a growing number of young Australians choosing to pursue the US college pathway, I asked how he decided on choosing the Roadrunners.
"I liked Utah quite a lot but at the time their hoops program was just not there. Valparaiso's weather deterred and the basketball program at Sacramento was not quite there. UTSA however was just about to start a football team and they had good people, good weather and had a clear vision to grow the program. I wanted to be a part of something and help grow a program. I was also going to get the chance to play as a freshman and play decent minutes. In the end it was an easy decision."
In his first year, play minutes he did, averaging an impressive 13.4 points and a team-high 6.6 rebounds as a freshman. When it was needed the most however, he stepped up to lead UTSA to the Southland Conference title, delivering a 25 point performance on 10/14 shooting including 4/4 on triples in the championship game. With the outstanding individual performances came the individual accolades, but also a cherished trip to the NCAA tournament.
"As a freshman I could not have asked for a better start to my college career. It really could not have gone too much better! I played well and shot well - it all just flowed.
"However I came home and in hindsight took it all for granted. I did not think that I had to keep working at it. I put on a little weight but lost a lot of fitness. While I came back and played well as a sophomore, I did not really progress as I wanted to - I sort of plateaued."
It is obvious that Hill has high expectations, as in his second year he posted 12.5 points and a team-best 6.4 rebounds per game while shooting better than 40% from beyond the arc for the second straight year. He received All-Southland Conference accolades but was also doing well off the court, being named 2012 Southland Conference Student-Athlete of the Year. However the Queenslander stated he was not satisfied and was determined to do something about it.
"I really regret not being in great shape during my sophomore year. That off-season I set about getting myself right. I did a lot of running, every day. I essentially ran from Cooktown to Cairns!"
Running approximately 260km is a pretty extreme training method, yet clearly demonstrated the desire and commitment from Hill to better himself and to improve his game. He explained he ran every day leading up to his junior year and arrived back at school in great shape. Everything was looking good after starting the season feeling good and playing very well, until something went wrong with his knee.
"I put in all that effort and then hurt my knee. I began to experience a lot of pain in my knee, and after seeing the doctor and having an MRI it was diagnosed as being a torn meniscus."
Deciding to play on to close out the remainder of the season, Hill continued to play with the pain instead of opting to delay the surgery to after the season. He would often be sitting in the hot tub for 90 minutes prior to each game just to loosen up the knee. It was a brave decision, one made with the best interests of the team in mind. He would end the season averaging a respectable 13.1 points and 6.5 rebounds per game.
"I chose to wait until the end of the season and play through tremendous pain. For me there was little choice as we had moved to the Western Athletic Conference and we wanted to do well. We ended up beating the first seed but ultimately ran out of legs during the tournament."
Hindsight is a wonderful thing. Hill readily acknowledged that he overdid the off-season training to get in shape and lose the weight. He spent too much time running - a high impact activity - especially for a man of his size and stature. It took a toll on his body, and in this case his knee.
"I had the post-season surgery on the knee and all went well. I came back strongly and was in great shape and ready to play. However during my third week back at practice I tore the meniscus on the other side of the same knee. I had to make a decision on whether to play through a season of pain or choose surgery. Given the season had not yet started I chose surgery with the knowledge that it would take around 6 weeks to recover."
The frustration in Hills voice was evident as he discussed the knee injury in more detail. He would go on to explain that this time the pain never went away.
"Second time around the knee never recovered. Even up to Christmas and it was still causing me pain. Two parts of my knee do not have cartilage, just bone on bone. My knee was unbalanced and I just had no realistic chance to get back to play that season. I therefore decided to take a red-shirt."
Resigned to a season on the sidelines, Hill placed all his energy into recovering but also his studies, completing his degree in Marketing. Coming back for a fifth year, he enrolled into graduate school and his MBA. He did not return to Australia and stayed at school all summer where he focused on school work and rehabilitating his knee.
"I took a page out of Tim Duncan's book. Instead of pounding my knees with running, I took up swimming, riding the bike and skipping. The last 4-5 weeks of practice I have had no issues, just general soreness. With the cross-training my vertical has increased and now I'm a lot stronger."
Jeromie Hill - Courtesy Jeff Huehn/UTSA Athletics
Hill recognises that both for his studies and basketball, his last year of college has now become his most important. He went on to explain he is on track to graduate with his MBA on time with the comfort of knowing he is well prepared for life after basketball. It was clear that he was excited for the season to start, knowing he still has plenty to prove.
"I don't feel like I've played my best basketball. I am ready to now take the next step. Sitting out a whole year in some ways has proven to be a blessing in disguise. While I love the team, it allowed me to skip was ended up being a miserable year on court, while now also being able to leave with a graduate degree. My girlfriend graduates at the same time too so it all looks like it is going to work out."
Talking about the season ahead, Hill spoke glowingly about the talent on the team and the ability for the group to come together and hopefully make a deep run in Conference USA. He referenced the competitive training sessions and was confidence that if the team could get within range down the stretch, they had the personnel to make the big shots when needed.
"We have some very good pieces, some very good young guys this season. We are all very competitive. We want to go back dancing - it is now 5 years since we have done that."
Hill was excited about hitting the court again, and is expecting to play big minutes this season due to a lack of depth at center and power forward on the team. He knows all too well that this season, his last in college hoops, is his last chance at auditioning for a professional contract
"I want to play all 40 minutes each game if I can. I will embrace all opportunities presented and make the most of them."
While his focus for now is on his studies and preparing for the season ahead, there is no doubting that a fit and firing Hill will generate significant interest both back in Australia and abroad. For now however we should not look that far ahead; instead we should embrace Hill's return from injury and helping guide the Roadrunners back to on-court success.