Kinney hopes juco route pays off

Kinney hopes juco route pays off

CHAMPAIGN – James Kinney's next basketball stop will be in high desert country.

The former Centennial High basketball standout recently signed a national letter of intent with the College of Eastern Utah in Price, Utah.

Kinney is transferring to the junior college following a troubled freshman year at Ohio University which ended with his dismissal from the team in mid-February. The 2009 News-Gazette All-Area Player of the Year has three seasons of eligibility remaining, one of which will be used at Eastern Utah.

Kinney, who declined to be interviewed for this story, would have been forced to sit out the upcoming season under NCAA transfer rules had he signed with another Division I school. Instead, he will continue his playing career without interruption this season at a rising junior college power. Eastern Utah placed third in the NJCAA Division I tournament last March, losing in the semifinals to eventual champion Howard College of Big Spring, Texas.

"He comes with a good resume," Eastern Utah head coach Brad Barton said Thursday. "We love the amount of experience he already has on the Division I level. He has a great reputation for working hard and for being a very aggressive, tough point guard."

The 6-foot-1 Kinney appeared in 19 games last season at Ohio, including three starts. His 9.7 scoring average ranked sixth on the team. He also ranked fourth among the Bobcats in three-point field goals (31).

"We think he fits in well in our program," Barton said. "We led our league in scoring last year at 81 points (per game), and I think he's really good in an up-tempo style and in the open floor. It will exploit his strengths – his ball handling and speed."

Eastern Utah returns four players from a team that caught fire in the second half of the season, winning 14 of its last 16 games en route to a 27-10 record. Kinney will be familiar with at least one of his future teammates. Jonathan Mills, a 6-6 forward, played for the Chicago North Lawndale team that lost to Kinney and the Chargers in the Class 3A state semifinals in 2009. As a top reserve last season, Mills led the Golden Eagles in rebounding (8.6) and finished second in scoring (12.4).

Barton said he began recruiting Kinney shortly after the three-time N-G All-Area player was dismissed by Ohio coach John Groce.

"I've stayed on him pretty hard, just trying to reach him through things like Facebook when his cell phone was turned off there for a while," Barton said.

Before offering a scholarship, Barton flew to Champaign to meet with Kinney and his parents. He said he came away convinced that the former Charger was sincerely remorseful for actions that led to guilty pleas in two separate court cases and two team suspensions while at Ohio.

"It was something we talked about," Barton said. "It was definitely an issue of concern. But junior college is a second chance for a lot of athletes.

"I don't think the mistakes he made were ones of major ill-intent, We certainly think he's grown up a little bit from the experience."

One of Eastern Utah's selling points for Kinney undoubtedly is its record of sending players on to four-year schools – in most cases in Division I. The team's website lists 103 former players who continued their collegiate careers after playing for the Golden Eagles. Barton said 10 members of last season's team signed with four-year schools, including seven in Division I.

"It's our biggest selling point," Barton said. "That's why we believe we're successful (in recruiting) – because we can get kids to the next level."

For Kinney, that process already is in motion. He is in Tulsa, Okla., this weekend for the Mullen's Sports Top 120 Camp. The three-day event is open to junior college sophomores-to-be and serves to showcase their skills for NCAA Division I coaches.

Barton indicated he's received calls inquiring about Kinney from coaches in the Mountain West and Missouri Valley conferences "all the way up to the Big 12."