US College basketball: The best four years of my life
This past weekend I was asked to sit on a panel at a Basketball Victoria Country conference and through my time there, I was informed that my experience at college was rare. Apparently, the majority of stories floating around about college are mostly negative. I was really surprised at that as I know many Australians, myself included, who had positive and successful careers at college and some who have gone onto stay in America afterwards.
To help dispel any myths, I will try to highlight what I believe College basketball is all about. This includes some reasons why there are negative experiences (and there are), why I recommend going to college, an opinion about the attitude towards college basketball within the Australian basketball community, and what may need to change.
What is College all about?
College is a business.
Much like professional sports, players are recruited and cut for various reasons. Coaches are sacked, programs are turned upside down, and most importantly, particularly for international players; players are constantly being recruited over. If you’re going to leave home for a long time and spend all your time training but not playing, it’s a really hard time. You go to play, not sit on a bench.
I am aware that what I’ve just outlined makes it sound very unappealing, however many of the negative experiences that players and parents experience in the college basketball systems comes from being unprepared in a variety of ways.
It’s like starting high school again, you’re the newbie, the 'freshie', and like high school, there is a maturation process. Despite everything a coach may promise during the recruiting process, the likelihood that the promise will be fulfilled is low. If you walk in without caution and with high expectations, you may well end up being disappointed.
That being said, as an international player, there is a limit. But even if it doesn’t work out the first year, I wouldn’t suggest going home as there are options. Personally, I would have transferred somewhere else.
There are so many options, so many programs, so many opportunities overlooked because the player, parents, or both, give up on any positivism before it’s really even started. I personally think you need at minimum two years before you decide if it’s for you or not. One year simply isn’t enough, and it’s much too overwhelming to have a clear opinion about it without giving it a real chance. There’s also a stigma about the lower divisions, including the NAIA and junior colleges, however, they can be great experiences as well, both on and off the court and should not be overlooked or dismissed.
I honestly believe that if you are being recruited and asked to commit to a 4-year scholarship, you should visit first the school. This is a chance to meet the people you’ll be working with, including the coaches and potential teammates, while also being able to assess the potential environment you’ll be moving too.
Speak with everyone, get a sense for the culture and atmosphere. Many people don’t visit and just commit over the phone. If the coach wants you enough, they will agree to arranging an official visit. If they refuse and insist you commit over the phone, it may be worthwhile reconsidering - I would personally give them a miss.
I wouldn’t have chosen to go to Fresno State if I hadn’t visited the school first. On campus, I felt an immediate connection with the coaches and the team. I was not able to experience that over the phone and through communicating via email.
Finding the right school and situation for you is important. Go where your gut instinct tells you to go - that’s something that you should never give away. Make an informed choice for yourself and the chances you have a great experience will only increase.
Top 5 reasons to attend College
1 | Free education
For starters, you can receive a ‘free education’ under scholarship - although you pay for it through blood, sweat, tears, puke and exhaustion. I chose not to incur any debt and avoided taking out student loans.
College is also an environment where academics are strongly encouraged. There are required study hours, tutors and many rules. You literally cannot afford to fail classes, because if you do you cannot play. If having an education is important to you, if you want to have something to fall back on life after basketball, and you don’t want to have a lot of debt, this is a great reason.
2 | The experience
The experience is unlike anything you will ever have again.
There is nothing else in the world like US College sports. The training is intense, 5-6 days a week, the fans are unbelievable, and the exposure in the media is on an entirely different level to Australia.
It is truly an unforgettable part of life. It’s a collection of moments, highs and lows, that contribute to the overall the experience. Everyone’s experience is different, but I haven’t spoken to anyone who regrets making the decision to give it a go.
3 | The training
The training environment is also unlike anything you will experience anywhere else.
When the court isn’t being used by another sport - if you share it - you can go in there at any time. There’s honestly no excuse you can give for something in your game not improving. If you want to work out individually with a coach, all you have to do is ask. If you need your body fixed, all you do is tell your trainer the problem and they’ll do what they can to fix it or help you. If you want to get stronger, the strength and conditioning centre is open almost all day. And all of this support to make you a better player comes free.
4 | Different styles of play
You learn different styles of play in playing College basketball. If you are only taught the one style, how can your game improve?
Learning how to read the game differently, to attack, defend and move in different ways is only going to develop in improve your skill set. If you’re always in your comfort zone, always running the same thing with the same people, you’re going to become predictable, easy to read and honestly, it’s boring. When on your school visit, if you are able to watch a game or training and don’t like the style of play, you can always choose somewhere else.
5 | Mature as a player
Going to a school and program that has experience with international players is also really important. They have a better understanding of what you need emotionally and mentally, and are better able to help, understand and support you with any issues or requirements that you may have.
Whether conscious or unconscious, deliberate or not, there is a message within the development programs for Australian basketballers; that you have to stay in Australia to be successful. That you have to ‘pay your dues’, or if you don’t stay you won’t be selected. Personally, I experienced that directly and indirectly.
I recall a time where there were eleven players who had expressed an interest, and all but two were persuaded to stay, myself included. The moment I declared and was immovable in my decision to go to college, it was treated like I had decided to abandon my country. That may be putting it dramatically, but that was the way it felt back then.
Looking back, it’s quite interesting and very disappointing to know that I had been almost put into a box in the corner of Basketball Australia to look at every now and again. Yet I was no longer looked at as a potential future elite player - simply because I wanted to go to college.
Despite the pressure to stay and play in Australia, I left to pursue what turned out to be a very successful college career. I was able to focus solely on my basketball and schooling, all done within a great support system at Fresno State. The school didn’t prevent me from participating in any Basketball Australia events, nor did any other school that I am aware of where other Australians were playing at.
Following my experience, I don’t believe that there is enough education within the basketball community in Australia about what college is really about. There appears to be a lot of assumptions and ideas taken and spun for whichever way suits. I hope that I am right in my impression and own personal experience over the last few years that some attitudes towards College basketball has in fact been shifting.
I hope that there are many other people who have had good College experiences and share their stories to try to shift the attitude that college is something bad or not worth doing.
College is an amazing, irreplaceable experience. As many people as possible should be able to choose that development pathway without feeling ostracised or pressured. For me, it was the best four years of my life.
For more in-depth information about how to prepare for and be successful in US College basketball, check out the four-piece series Alex Sheedy has written.
More information can also be found here: Preparing Aussie kids for US College basketball
To read more about Alex Sheedy, her journey as an athlete and for tips and advice about becoming a successful basketball player, visit her website: www.alexsheedy.com
You can also follow her on Twitter: @aksheeds