This is how Salt Lake Community College became the No. 1 JUCO basketball team in the country
Park City, UT (January 22, 2022) — Among basketball feats, winning the national junior college championship is a sorely underrated one.
Lifting the trophy requires four wins in five days, if you’re lucky enough to have an opening-round bye. There are upsets galore. Last March, the Nos. 1, 2 and 5 seeds lost in the quarterfinals. That was at least better than the Nos. 3 and 4, both of whom got bounced in a round earlier.
In the end, the Red Ravens of Coffeyville, Kan., won it all — as a 10-seed.
Salt Lake Community College men’s basketball coach Kyle Taylor certainly knows the history of the tournament. When the Bruins won it in 2016, they were a 13-seed with eight losses.
Taylor and the Bruins will be back in Hutchinson, Kan. — back at Hutch, as it’s known — this week as the No. 1 junior college team in the country. They have won 32 games and lost only one. And they know they cannot afford a second loss if they’re to accomplish their ultimate goal.
“Your mindset has to be going in there and winning one game at a time,” Taylor said.
For the Bruins, the right mindset is everything.
Getting healthy: How SLCC recruits D1 transfers
Doctor Bradley needed to get healthy.
A 6-foot-8 forward from South Central Los Angeles, Bradley started his collegiate career at Cal State Fullerton. He redshirted a season, then played 13 games for the Titans last season. But something didn’t feel right.
Bradley did not feel Fullerton was a “motivating environment” and attempts to prove himself were never enough, so he entered the NCAA Transfer Portal. He received new D1 interest, but felt he was better than what he was getting.
Then he met Taylor and the staff at SLCC.
How do you get a former Division I basketball player to suit up for you in Taylorsville, Utah? When Taylor meets with a Division I recruit, a key part of his pitch is what he calls “getting healthy.” That doesn’t necessarily mean just in a physical sense, but in everything a player is going through. Ultimately, Taylor is trying to sell kids on the opportunity to take a seven-month break so to speak, and “get healthy” in order to get back to where they want to be.
Taylor sold Bradley on reinventing himself and rediscovering his confidence.
“At first, I thought Coach Taylor was crazy, mostly because he was recruiting a lot of guys,” Bradley said. “A lot of D1 guys showed up here, good players. Every time someone showed up, I thought it was enough, Then, someone else would show up, and I thought that was enough. I thought he was crazy and I wasn’t going to be able to play here.
“We started playing with each other, though, and everything jelled.”
The Bruins sophomore point guard Chase Adams had a productive two seasons at the University of Portland, but decided he wanted a change after head coach Terry Porter was fired. Adams, like Bradley, cites confidence issues coming out of his previous situation. Adams, like Bradley, wasn’t willing to settle for the level of portal interest he was receiving.
To his credit, Taylor spoke to Adams early in the transfer process, before most any other school was able to make a case. Even after schools came calling, Taylor had already made an impression.
“It was easy for me to trust him and it was easy for me to come here and really play my game and have fun again. Those things were very important,” Adams said. “I came here wanting to find myself again. That was the thinking coming in here. You can’t come into a situation like this thinking you’re too big, too good, or anything like that. You come here because you want to create better opportunities for yourself.”
For guard Jordan Brinson, stops at UAB and then Utah Valley hadn’t panned out. So Brinson found his way to SLCC — and found his way back to full “health”.
Last month, Brinson was named Region 18 Player of the Year. He and Bradley were both named All-Region 18 first team, while Adams got a second-team nod. The three of them have combined to average 39.8 points per game, while the Bruins lead the nation in scoring at an absurd 105.7 points per game.
How good is SLCC’s basketball team?
The month of October in the JUCO world is reserved for multi-team showcases, which are essentially recruiting opportunities before the regular season begins. Think of them as a large-scale AAU event with college coaches watching, but instead of high school recruits, it’s junior college recruits, some of whom have spent time at Division I programs and are looking to get back to that level.
On Oct. 8, SLCC walked into the Game on Sports Complex in Fort Worth, Texas. The first of the Bruins’ three games that evening came against 2021 NJCAA champion Coffeyville (Kan.) Community College. Coffeyville, as is often the case with a lot of two-year programs, was dealing with heavy turnover, but still, that type of matchup in October was at least going to be a barometer of where the Bruins stood to start the year.
“We blew them out by like 30, so I’m thinking like, ‘Man, JUCO must be really bad out here,’” Bradley half-jokingly told The Salt Lake Tribune during a recent phone interview. “We blew them out and they won the national championship last year, so this should be a breeze, right?”
The Bruins beat Trinity Valley (Texas) an hour later, then beat perennial JUCO contender Indian Hills (Iowa) to close the night. The next day, SLCC traveled to Windsor, Colo., for the Rocky Mountain Jamboree for two more scrimmages. On Oct. 18, SLCC was installed as the nation’s preseason No. 1 team. The Bruins head to Hutch having yet to relinquish that ranking, having started 28-0 with the one loss on Feb. 16 coming at another perennial JUCO factor, College Southern of Idaho.
“I knew we were talented, I knew we were probably a top-10 team, but I don’t think I had any inkling we’d be No. 1 heading into Hutch,” Taylor said. “Obviously, we have a lot of big games left to accomplish what we really want to accomplish.”
Getting to the finish line
None of this season’s wins matters now. Taylor knows it, and he has made sure to drill it into the mind of every one of his players as the potential for this group to win the program’s third national championship since 2009 is very legitimate, very real, and very difficult.
“Obviously, you’re trying to win a national championship, but if you lose your first game, you’re out. One of the things I reminded our guys is, yeah, we’re the No. 1 seed, but nobody in that locker room, myself included, I’ve never won a game at Hutch. To go in there overconfident or start thinking about who you’re playing in the semis or who you’re going to have to beat to win a national championship, that won’t work. We need to go there and win game one.”
If Hutch, the site of the JUCO championships each March dating back to 1949, wasn’t already a pressure cooker, now consider the recruiting end of things. The 6,500-seat seat Hutchinson Sports Arena will have a slew of Division I and II assistants on hand. Every player on every team is trying to gain offers or improve upon the offers they already have.
Bradley, Adams and Brinson qualify as the latter. All three have D1 offers and interest of varying degrees, but a productive run at Hutch can better all of their fortunes. That notion circles back to the team aspect of Hutch.
Yes, everyone is worried about their offers, but the more games you win, the more opportunity there will be to play in front of coaches.
“My first goal coming in here was to get healthy, but right behind that was winning the national championship,” said Adams, who counts Stetson, Gardner Webb, McNeese State, and Coastal Carolina among his current offers. “Getting healthy and winning can go hand in hand. If you have that type of mentality, everything will take care of itself.”
Added Brinson: “Coach Taylor told us, and we’ve really bought into it, the more games we win, the more opportunities to show what we can do. If we only play once, it’s not going to be good for anybody. We’re bought into that. Winning will better every person on our team. That’s all we want.”