Since the program’s inception in 1965, the men’s basketball team has played in Division I. Starting in Fall of 2023, the nearly 60 year continuation will come to an end as the program will transition to Division II.
Longtime head coach Sam Ballard left the program just before the beginning of the 2021 season, leaving the team to be run by former assistant coach Jimmy Herrera. With the sudden change in leadership, the team had their worst record in program history at 5-20.
The down season is not to say there were not any bright spots on the team, as BJ Burries was named to the DI All-Region 2nd team.
With the program going in a new direction under a new head coach in Lester Neal, it seemed as though their ranking within the divisions might be the next major change to make.
“It was time to go to division two in men’s basketball,” said MCC Athletic Director John Mulhern.
When it comes to Junior College basketball, there are many differences between Division I and Division II. Obviously, DI is the most competitive division with the majority of the best players in the region.
Besides the competitive level difference, Division I can offer their athletes full scholarships and room and board. Division II schools are allowed to offer full scholarships, however they are not allowed to offer room and board to their student athletes.
Playing in the best division comes with advantages that most DI programs used to continuously compete at a high level. MCC, on the other hand, was not able to use those advantages like the other programs in the division.
For starters, MCC does not have dorms. While some other programs have the luxury of easy access to their players whenever they need, MCC does not. With no boarding for their athletes, the food plans that will help keep the athletes fueled and healthy goes away as well.
The program, in a lot of aspects, was disadvantaged compared to other schools in Division I. Last season, the top two teams in the conference were, not surprisingly, DI schools.
The constant on both of those teams is their roster makeup, as both schools had only one player that was from the state of Ariona. Until recently, MCC had limitations on out-of-state recruits.
A rule that was passed in March of 2021 gave MCC more ability to entice out-of-state athletes to become Thunderbirds. Before, the school could only encourage out-of-state athletes to attend the school. Now the school is allowed to offer a limited number of out-of-state athletes a scholarship, but with its limitations.
Even though the cost to attend MCC would be more due to the athlete being from another state, the school can only offer them a scholarship at the rate as if they were an in-state athlete. So if the allotted scholarship money for an in-state athlete is $2,000, that is what the school can give to the athlete even though, in reality, the cost for them to attend MCC would be higher due to their residency.
To be able to play with teams that are comparable to you in skills and abilities is paramount to get a true sense of how good of a program and team you have. Another advantage of playing against teams who you match in skill level with is the doors it opens up for your program and athletes themselves.
By playing with teams you can compete against, as long as you are able to build a successful team and good culture, you can make deep runs in tournaments on both a regional and national scale. That will get you more exposure for your program, more eyes on your program means more athletes might consider you as the school for them to represent.
The end goal for the athletes, however, is to get to the next level. The best way to do that is to get as many people as possible looking at them.
“Part of the allure of Division II as well as playing teams that are comparable as you,” said Mulhern. “To make it to the national tournament also will gain exposure for your student athletes.”
In the past, sports like cross country, golf, and women’s basketball have played in the national tournament. With a larger stage and more eyes on the athletes, those who performed well were able to parlay their play and their exposure to a larger audience into offers from larger schools and even Division I programs.
The hopes are high for MCC once they do make the change to DII in the fall of 2023, especially from Mulhern.
“In women’s basketball we’ve been national runner up and national champions, so I can definitely see our men’s team doing that too,” said Mulhern.
Though it has been difficult for MCC to compete with the other DI powerhouses in the conference such as Cochise, AZ Western, and AZ Eastern who reap the benefits of a true DI school, MCC’s men’s basketball program has been able to do well against them, even with the disadvantages they have faced. They hope under a new regime with Coach Neal at the helm and playing in a new division, they can prove they are a force to be reckoned with.