The Jump: What it takes to go from high school basketball to college

So you think you’re a pretty good high school basketball player, huh? Good enough to play at the next level, right? Well you better listen up, because the transition isn’t a layup.

Ishpeming girls coach Ryan Reichel starred at the high school level for Westwood and went on to Northern Michigan University, where he said he was anything but a star. That switch from being the best player on the team to being a role player can be difficult for many kids to handle, and it sometimes derails careers.

“You gotta go in with the mindset saying ‘I’m gonna do whatever it takes to be a player for this program,'” said Reichel, “and if that means I’m just gonna play defense or I’m just gonna be a passer, you better enjoy that role. If you don’t you won’t get on the floor and your experience won’t be as enjoyable as mine was at the end of my career.”

Many players say they love basketball. But do you really love basketball? Would you dedicate every second of your life to basketball? Many people wouldn’t. If you’re not a part of that group, don’t bother trying to play at the next level. Negaunee coach Brandon Sager, who is No. 14 on the NMU all-time scoring list by the way, said you have to love the grind in order to succeed in college.

“I think a lot of people don’t understand the effort that has to go in every single day,” said Sager. “It’s a grind, but you really have to make that commitment to do it. It has to be your number one priority, and I think a lot of…high school players in general don’t really realize it. It’s committing to making yourself as good as you can be whether it be your body, your skill set, even the mental part of the game.”

A typical day for a college athlete looks much different than a typical day for a normal college student. Gwinn coach Ben Olsen played a year of college ball and gave an example of exactly what a player has to commit to.

Tell me if this sounds like your idea of fun:

“Six a.m. you’re up lifting, working out, then you have classes somewhere between 8 o’clock and 2 o’clock. Then you try to eat together as a team, then you have practice or film and then you have practice after that. You’re going from basically six in the morning until six, seven, eight at night. If you’re not fully committed and don’t truly love the game of basketball and being around it almost all the time, it really turns into a full-time job.”

I don’t see any time carved out for afternoon naps or Netflix binge sessions, so there’s no way I’d ever make it as a college basketball player.

Still want that lifestyle? Great. Keep reading.

Notice a trend here? We haven’t really mentioned any kind of basketball skills required, or what the perfect height is, or which summer camps you should go to. That’s all secondary in the eyes of most college coaches. Jim Finkbeiner, the Gwinn boys coach, said scouts usually ask him about a player’s personality first and what kind of teammate he is.

“They want to know what kind of person this player is,” said Finkbeiner. “Is he easy to get along with? How does he interact with other players? Even bigger is what kind of student is he? If you want to succeed at the next level, it’s going to take more than just your basketball skills to get there. These people are looking for good kids and that means in more than just on the basketball floor.”

Having a good personality is nice, being a good teammate is nice, but what happens when an opposing player dunks on you? Or what about when you turn the ball over five times in a half? Are you going to get mad? Are you going to make another dumb play?

“They (college coaches) want to see how you handle tough situations,” said Marquette boys coach Brad Nelson. “If you’re gonna get down if something goes wrong, it’s just going to compound the problem. That’s something that college coaches at that level, they don’t want to deal with having to fix that. They can take skill sets and work with that and make kids better and integrate them into the system, but if the kid doesn’t have it mentally, it makes it pretty hard to do things at that level.”

So after all that, all the time spent in the summer, the 6 a.m. workouts, let’s say you made the team. You have a decent spot as a role player. The hard part is over, right? Wrong, says Negaunee boys coach Dan Waterman. That’s actually just the beginning. The next challenge is keeping your spot.

“A college coach’s job is to recruit your replacement,” said Waterman. “So you can never be satisfied with how you’re playing at the time, or what your role is on the team. College coaches are hired and fired on their win-loss record…so they’re always trying to bring in the best players and they’re always trying to recruit someone better than you.”

There you have it, the blueprint to becoming a successful college basketball player. Still think you have what it takes?


Author: Blake Froling

I am currently the Sports Director at ESPN UP in Marquette, Michigan, where I host a daily sports talk show called The SportsPen. I am also the play-by-play voice for Westwood High School football and boys and girls basketball. I graduated from Michigan State University in December 2016 with a degree in journalism.

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