Many know of Ronald Ramon from New York City. He is the one that is the perfect hybrid of Sean Miller and Brandin Knight. And many know about Keith Benjamin. He is the one they call the next Julius Page. But the third member of next year's class is a bit of a mystery. As mysterious as why a New Yorker would go to college in Colorado.
Colorado is exactly where New Yorker John DeGroat matriculates. He arrived there from Monticello, NY, two hours from New York City, and a place so poverty stricken that nobody expects to escape it's clutches. But how he got there sounds less like the movie "Escape from New York" and more like the movie "Six Degrees of Separation".
"My high school coach is the cousin of my college coach's former head coach."
Oh that close?
"And this is the only junior college that recruited me," explains DeGroat, who just turned 19 in January. "When I first heard, I was thinking there was no way I was going all the way out to Colorado. But my mom told me to visit so I did. I ended up loving it."
The college in question is Northeast Junior College in Sterling, Colorado. Sterling has a population of a little over 11,000 people, and is two and a half hours from Denver. The closest city with a population of more than 50,000 people is Greeley, a mere 105 miles away. The middle of nowhere is the often-used term that immediately comes to mind.
But for DeGroat, it is a place that has changed his life. Born one of fourteen kids, his parents had to give him up to an aunt at the age of one. He eventually moved often before finally ending up with his foster family, the Macks, who knew what it was like to have a star basketball player in the family. Over a decade earlier, daughter Katrina went to Penn State where she became a 1,000-point scorer.
But now DeGroat, his sad past slowly but grudgingly fading into the past, talks of watching his future teammates on television, and he can't wait for his storybook turnaround to reach yet another level.
"I just get so excited," says DeGroat when asked about his feelings of watching Pitt play on television.
"I think of playing with Carl (Krauser), and Chris (Taft), and Chevy (Troutman) will still be there. When they play on the weekends I sometimes can't see them because I have basketball but I have the games taped for me so I can watch them. It's so great to watch them on television. Especially when they mention my name," laughs DeGroat.
DeGroat chose Pittsburgh over such great programs as Gonzaga and Oklahoma.
"Well, one of the reasons was because it was closer to home," says DeGroat. "But mostly I just fit in more there. Nothing against Gonzaga and Oklahoma, but Pittsburgh had the staff, the team, the coaches, the academics, and the city that I liked. It was what was best for me for basketball, as well as academically and socially."
Panther assistant Joe Lombardi was the coach that recruited DeGroat and DeGroat grew very fond of him.
"Lombardi's the man," he laughs.
DeGroat says he is doing well in school and while he is undeclared at Northeastern, he plans to major in either Education or Criminal Justice at Pittsburgh.
"I always wanted to be a coach," says DeGroat. "But I also would like to be an FBI agent."
An excellent athlete in high school, the 6'6" 210 physical specimen ran track for three years, competing in the 200m, the long jump, the high jump, and the triple jump, and even played soccer for a year.
"I was a midfielder and a goalie," explains DeGroat. "As a goalie I once shut out the best team in the region."
DeGroat started slowly this season, but Northeastern assistant Michael Wells says there were good reasons.
"He was tired from running all over the country on visits. Then when he came back, he was forcing things because he was trying too hard to fight through his fatigue," says Wells.
DeGroat goes on to say the whole thing was a whirlwind for him.
"I just couldn't believe that I was a Division 1 player," says DeGroat, still with amazement in his voice.
That may be DeGroat's best trait of all. He is genuinely touched that people notice him. He is such a pleasant and caring person that he once had to leave this interview to care for a sick roommate.
DeGroat doesn't always play a lot at Northeastern, but that has less to do with his talent than it does with the fact that Northeastern has "9 or 10 Division 1 players", according to Wells.
DeGroat was shooting poorly for the first month or so of the season, but lately has been on fire. As of this writing, DeGroat is averaging 11.3 ppg, good for second on the team. Because of the balance, eight players average between 6 and 12.5 points a game.
And now he is starting to shoot lights out after struggling a lot for much of the season. After a month of the season, DeGroat was shooting in the 35% range from the floor, 25% range from three-point land, and 50% range from the free throw line. His current torrid pace has lifted those season averages to an excellent 48% from the field, 71% from the free throw line, and an excellent 40% from the three-point arc.
"He has one of the nicest strokes from three you will ever see," says Wells. "And he has a great 15 to17 pull up jumper."
But shooting is only one of DeGroat's major strengths.
"Every time that he goes hard for a rebound he gets it," says Wells. "Every time. Now like every other kid his age, he doesn't always go hard. But he usually does."
When asked about his rebounding, DeGroat lights up.
"I love it. When I'm playing guard, I am too strong for the guy I am rebounding against. If I'm playing down low, I am too quick."
One thing Wells says DeGroat must improve on at the next level is defense. And both Wells and DeGroat knows if he doesn't do that well at Pittsburgh, he won't be playing.
"He does have some trouble guarding smaller guards on the perimeter," says Wells. "But he is working hard on it. I wouldn't even really call it a weakness."
"I know defense is what Pittsburgh is all about," says DeGroat. "I will work as hard as I have to."
DeGroat knows he was recruited to start next season and he is up to the challenge.
"I will work as hard as I can after this season," says DeGroat who says he will start classes and work out at Pitt in the summer. "I am definitely up to the challenge. I will work my butt off and I will do what I have to do."
But DeGroat, who has never been to a game at Pederson Events Center, knows that Jaron Brown will be hard to replace in the eyes of the fans.
"I just hope they see that I will do what the current team does. Play like every play is my last. And hopefully they will appreciate me like they do Jaron."
Play like every play is his last. Spoken like a true survivor. Spoken like a young man that for the first time in his life can concentrate on a bright future instead of a sad past.
Exclusive Interview with John DeGroat
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