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Junior College Conference Turns Out Big-Time Players

February 4, 1989

ODESSA, Texas (AP) _ Out on the windswept plains of West Texas and eastern New Mexico, there’s not much to do but play basketball and hit the books.

But that’s just the idea behind the Western Junior College Athletic Conference, which has become a recruiting hotbed for Nevada-Las Vegas’ Jerry Tarkanian, Oklahoma’s Billy Tubbs and many other Division I coaches.

WJCAC coaches say the NCAA’s Proposition 48, which set stricter eligibility requirements on athletes entering four-year schools, has given juco programs a boost.

And it could get another boost if Proposition 42, which would deny athletic scholarships to players who don’t meet the standards, becomes NCAA law.

The nine schools which make up the WJCAC are located in isolated towns - Snyder, Levelland, Big Spring, Hobbs - where oil rigs dot the flat horizon and the wind blows incessantly.

But that hasn’t stopped some of the nation’s top players from starting their college careers at WJCAC schools such as Midland College - whose most famous player was Spud Webb - Western Texas and New Mexico Junior College in hopes of landing at a top Division I program.

The WJCAC has joined such tradition-rich junior colleges as San Jacinto College among the juco elite.

″I’ve always respected junior college basketball in Texas,″ said Oklahoma assistant coach Jim Kerwin, a former juco coach at Seminole Junior College. ″I feel that without a doubt this year the junior college basketball in Texas is by far the best in the country.″

Through Kerwin’s recruiting efforts, Oklahoma has taken so many players from Midland College the school’s almost considered a branch by the folks in Norman.

Former Chaparrals Ricky Grace and Mookie Blaylock helped take the Sooners to the Final Four last year. Skeeter Henry joined Blaylock this season, and current Midland point guard Charles ″Smokey″ McCovery signed with Tubbs, a former juco player himself, last fall.

Other Chaps are playing at Kansas State, Seton Hall, Wyoming and Idaho State.

″That’s pretty good, I think,″ said Midland public relations director H.A. Tuck.

And Midland was only a third-place conference finisher last year.

In the past two years, that school’s dominance has been challenged by other league members.

″I think Midland has had one of the premier junior college programs for the last 10-15 years,″ said Kerwin. ″The league is much more balanced now. The other schools have become so much better.

One of those is Odessa College, which after posting its best season ever last year at 30-5 is undefeated and sitting atop the NJCAA poll.

″The top four teams in this league are always very tough,″ said Odessa coach Dennis Helms.

Odessa’s program got a lift both from Helms, in his third year with the Wranglers, and NJCAA player of the year Larry Johnson, who’s headed to UNLV next season.

″We don’t have a person that won’t get a Division I offer,″ Helms said.

Johnson’s frontcourt teammate, Sammie Freeman, will join two other former Wranglers at Idaho next year.

South Plains College in Levelland is stuck out in the cotton fields, but its reputation is ritzy enough for the 13th-ranked Texans to don tuxedoes for their media guide photos.

″Division I coaches say there is the possibility of four teams in our conference winning the national championship,″ said South Plains’ Ron Mayberry, the conference’s 1988 coach of the year. ″The conference is up big- time.″

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