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Kai Ryssdal: The college basketball season has come down to this weekend. Michigan State takes on Butler, West Virginia meets Duke, Saturday in the Final Four. The championship game is Monday night in Indianapolis, sure to be watched by millions on television.
Making the Final Four is every high school basketball player's dream come true. Players on hundreds of community college teams would love to make the jump and suit up for a Division-1 school as well. If they can make the grade. April Dembosky reports.
April Dembosky: It's the semi-finals of the California community college championship tournament. San Francisco City College forward Da'ron Sims muscles past the guards for San Bernardino Valley. He sprints under the basket for a pass, a mane of dreadlocks trailing after him. He leaps into the air and dunks the ball through the hoop.
Announcer: A slam for Da'ron Sims!
Sims played for a championship basketball team in high school. But his grades weren't good enough to make a Division-1 school.
Da'ron Sims: A lot of players end up at a junior college, either they didn't handle their business in the gym and on the court, or school-wise.
Adam D'Aquisto is the assistant coach for San Francisco City. As a recruiting scout, he had his eye on Sims throughout his high school career in nearby Oakland.
ADAM D'Aquisto: The guys we go after are the guys who have already screwed up. And so when we first get them in the door, it's like hey, look, this is your second chance.
Sims graduates from San Francisco City College this spring, and he's hoping to land a full scholarship to a top four-year college.
Between 1999 and 2002, nearly 9,000 junior college athletes transferred to Division-1 schools. Many of them got scholarships overseen by the NCAA. Depending on the school, those scholarships can total as much as $50,000 a year per player.
But the number of community college transfers has been dropping since the NCAA launched a drive to improve the academic performance of college athletes.
PHILLIP Martin: Now in Division 1, you can't recruit an at-risk junior college guy.
Phillip Martin is an assistant coach for the Nebraska Cornhuskers. He's at the California community college tournament scouting potential players.
Martin: If he comes to our place and he's there a year and he drops out, then it takes a point from us, and if you fall below a certain average, then they start taking scholarships.
As part of its academic reforms, the NCAA stripped scholarships from 17 basketball teams in 2006. Last year, that number grew to nearly 40.
Kevin Lennon is vice president for academic affairs at the NCAA.
KEVIN Lennon: Presidents and all other athletic administrators recognize that everyone is being held accountable for the academic performance of our students.
Community college players are paying the price for this new accountability. New research from the NCAA shows that only about half of two-year college basketball players earn their bachelors degrees after transferring to a Division-1 school.
Nebraska's Phillip Martin says schools like his are taking fewer kids from community colleges to protect their scholarships.
Martin: You're rolling the dice, you know, on a lot these kids. But that's the nature of the business.
Announcer: Time out called by San Francisco...
Da'Ron Sims ended up scoring 12 points in San Francisco City's victory over San Bernardino Valley. His team went on to the finals against Saddleback College and lost. But Sims' play in the tournament sparked plenty of interest from recruiters. And they talked to him as much about his academic goals as his workout routine.
Sims: Well, a lot of schools that I'm talking to, they see me play, but they ask about school more than anything else. That's kinda what I like about it. Cause I don't want to feel like they just using me. I want them to actually be there for me and be able to help me in school.
Sims hopes to hear something on the future of his basketball and academic career as soon as March Madness wraps up next week.
I'm April Dembosky for Marketplace.