Just a few months removed from playing basketball inside small and cramped high school gyms, Umar Shannon got a quick reminder that he wasn't suiting up for Atlantic City anymore.
On Nov. 28, Shannon and his St. Francis (Pa.) teammates played at then-No. 17 Ohio State in a game televised on the Big Ten Network. And the freshman, having played just five college games at that point, couldn't believe how big the 19,500-seat arena in Columbus, Ohio, was.
"I was like, 'Are you serious? This many people come out to the game to watch?' Shannon said. "During pregame, I was like, 'No way this stadium will be filled.' Then I came out, and I was like, 'Oh, my God.' It was crazy."
Making the adjustment from high school to college isn't easy for freshmen. Juggling school work, a new environment, an increased workout schedule and constant bus and plane rides can be overwhelming. There's also the stress of trying to do everything perfectly to impress coaches and perhaps earn more playing time.
Three freshmen who starred locally in high school have made the transition to the Division I game rather quickly. Shannon, Khalif Toombs and Ashley Durham all are learning on the fly and playing a lot of minutes, despite their inexperience.
'Everyone is good'
"The intensity of the game and the pace are different, especially having to guard someone that's good every night and not be able to play against a weaker player," said Durham, a Sacred Heart graduate now at Canisius College in Buffalo, N.Y. "High school was easier because there's a couple good players, but in college, everyone is good."
The freshmen had to help carry their high school teams. They were counted on to be leaders and score a lot of points. That's not the case anymore. Now, it's all about fitting in and finding a role.
Durham, from Hoover Avenue in Millville, was the 2009 Girls Basketball Press Player of the Year. She averaged 24.3 points last season and became just the fourth local girl to score more than 2,000 career points. Now, at Canisius (5-9 overall, 3-3 Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference), she is averaging 5.1 points in 18.1 minutes per game.
Don't be deceived by the difference in the numbers, though. It's not easy for a freshman at any college to play a lot of minutes. Generally, coaches are less comfortable giving minutes to players who aren't as experienced.
But Durham, a guard, is seeing plenty of time despite some struggles. She's shooting a disappointing 23.8 percent from the floor and averaging 3.4 turnovers per game, yet still shows plenty of positives to give coach Terry Zeh confidence to play her.
"She's so much better right now than she was a month and a half ago, and the reason is, Ashley wants to be good, wants to learn," Zeh said. "If things aren't going good, she's a worker. I think she's tougher on herself than I can be."
Earning their minutes
At South Carolina State, Toombs has started 10 of 12 games and averages 7.3 points in 23.4 minutes. Toombs, a guard, graduated from Atlantic City in 2008 and spent last season at IMG Academy basketball program, a post-graduate prep school in Bradenton, Fla.
The year there helped him raise his SAT scores as well as his basketball game.
On Dec. 29, South Carolina State was trying to pull off a major upset at Clemson, and it trailed by six in the final minute. Coach Tim Carter drew up a play specifically designed for Toombs, and he responded by drilling a 3-pointer to make it a one-possession game. The Bulldogs (7-5 overall, 1-0 in Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference) ended up losing by three, but Toombs justified the crunch-time minutes he received.
"I didn't think I was (going to play this much) in the beginning," said Toombs, who is from Sheridan Avenue in Atlantic City's Venice Park neighborhood, "but I knew if I worked hard I could average those minutes."
Shannon wasn't sure how many minutes he would play for St. Francis, either. He came off the bench for the first six games and struggled adjusting to being away from home. Shannon's friend B.J. Bailey, a Holy Spirit graduate, was playing 16 minutes per game at Boston University but decided to transfer because he was homesick. Shannon almost did, too.
"Early in the year, I had experienced (being homesick), and it was to the point where I wanted to leave," Shannon said. "Then again, I had to think about everything - like going back to Atlantic City and trying to find a different school. But I like my team, my coaches. So I just thought about that and had to be tough and grind it out."
Shannon, a first-team Press All-Star last year, now starts and is an important part of a St. Francis team that is 4-11 overall but 2-2 in the Northeast Conference. He averages 22.4 minutes and 10.1 points per game, second on the team. His 45.5 percentage from 3-point range is fourth in the NEC.
"He's going to be a big part of (the future)," St. Francis coach Don Friday said. "I know I feel really comfortable when he's in our lineup. He's earned his way to play."
As for that eye-opening walk into the huge Ohio State arena? Well, that wasn't anything compared to what Shannon was about to experience over the next couple hours - a 63-point loss.
"We got disowned," he said. "We learned a lot from that."
For Shannon, Durham and Toombs, this entire season has been all about learning.