Patterson guard Gary Blackston was talented enough to play Division I basketball coming out of high school. But the 6-foot-2, 180-pound combo guard had to make alternate plans because of his transcript.
"Going to JUCO, it'll definitely make a man out of you," said Blackston, a second-team Baltimore Sun All-Metro selection in 2015. "You have to perform at a high level. It's a lot of pressure."
The pressure was relieved last week when Blackston committed to Prairie View A&M, a D-I school in Texas that competes in the Southwestern Athletic Conference. Blackston was also recruited by Coppin State, James Madison, Lamar, Louisiana-Monroe, New Orleans, North Carolina A&T, South Carolina State, Southern Utah and Stephen F. Austin.
Blackston, who played three years at Joppatowne before transferring to Patterson for his senior year, followed the path of another Clippers star to junior college. Shakir Brown came up short of NCAA qualifying standards and went to Angelina College in Lufkin, Texas; he ultimately landed at James Madison, where he averaged 10 points and 4.7 rebounds in two seasons.
"He basically told me, 'This is the region you need to be in if you want to show people that you are capable of playing at the DI level,'" Blackston said of Brown's advice. "He was right about that. … The thing is, I'm happy I played in Region 14, because that's the toughest JUCO conference in JUCO basketball. It was essentially DI players out there with me, night in and night out."
Blackston looked the part of a DI player, averaging 10.6 points, 6.3 rebounds and 1.7 assists as a freshman, and 13.7 points, 6.0 rebounds and 1.6 assists as a sophomore. With little to do in rural Texas besides books and basketball, Blackston thrived in his new setting.
"It's been real smooth," he said. "JUCO, I'm happy I went here now because it showed the importance of grades. Now we're talking about degrees."
Blackston liked the idea of spending his last two years of college in another warm-weather climate, so southern schools had a leg up in his recruitment. But beyond that, Blackston wanted to know that he'd be joining a team that could contend.
"With two years of basketball left, my goal is to get to March Madness," Blackston said. "My thing was, I know I'm coming in as a junior and going to be on the floor. Where can I win my conference? Which schools can I win the conference in the next two years? It was more of that. I had the SWAC, MEAC and mid-major types of conferences. I just liked Prairie View."
Just as Blackston followed one Baltimore player in Brown to junior college, he follows another to DI in former St. Frances guard Daquan Cook. After graduating from UNLV and transferring to Prairie View, Cook last season averaged 10.8 points in leading the Panthers to a 10-8 record in the SWAC.
"Their vision is for me to come in and be an all-conference type player. That's the expectation," Blackston said. "They can expect a player that's going to play hard every possession, going to care, going to want to win. Then you know just having that Baltimore thing. It's just a different type of toughness."