March Madness around the world

College basketball coaches go global in search for talent

By Nicholas Nehamas

Jorden Page, an Australian on the St. Mary's College basketball team passes around Elias Harris, a German player on the Gonzaga University team, during the NCAA West Coast Conference Basketball Championship final in Las Vegas, Nevada, on March 5.

Jorden Page, an Australian on the St. Mary's College basketball team, passes around Elias Harris, a German player at Gonzaga University, during the NCAA West Coast Conference Basketball Championship final in Las Vegas, Nevada, on March 5. Reuters/Sam Morris

The NCAA men’s basketball tournament, now taking place across the United States, used to be as all-American as apple pie and Chevrolet. But as the recruiting process has become more and more competitive — some American prospects are discovered as early as the sixth grade — college coaches have  gone global in their search for talent. Now, March Madness, as the wildly popular basketball tourney is referred to in the U.S., has a distinct international flair to it.

U.S. President Barack Obama, left, and British Prime Minister David Cameron watch an NCAA basketball game in Ohio between Western Kentucky University and Mississippi Valley State. Reuters/Sam Morris

British Prime Minister David Cameron, who attended the tournament’s opening game Wednesday night as a guest of U.S. President Barack Obama, might have thought Western Kentucky University and Mississippi Valley State weren’t exactly hotbeds of cosmopolitanism or international intrigue. But both schools did their best to prove him wrong at the match: each team threw a foreign player into the mix as WKU completed a furious comeback victory over MSV.

Teeng Akol, a 6’11 center from Sudan, scored 9 points and blocked 5 shots for Western Kentucky — which advertises itself as an “American school with international reach” — while Luka Pajkovic, a freshman guard from Belgrade, got a couple of minutes off the bench for Mississippi Valley State. WKU’s Turkish guard, Kevin Kaspar, would have played if not for a season-ending injury suffered in January.

Akol, Pajkovic and Kaspar are  part of a surprising trend: Latitude News has found that of the 68 college teams that made it to the Big Dance this year, the rosters include 99 international players from 29 countries, a little more than 11 percent of the total player pool.

Almost a third of the players are from Canada, which makes sense, given our nations’ geographical and cultural proximity. Australia had the next most, at 12, while Senegal finished third with six. Twenty-four players came from European nations with traditions of good basketball, like Germany or Lithuania, or good height, like Sweden. Africa contributed 14 players. Latin America and the Caribbean chipped in with eight. Israel, New Zealand and Tunisia each had one.

A few teams in the National Collegiate Athletic Association basketball tournament are content with homegrown talent. Indiana, the most basketball-obsessed state in the country, doesn’t have a single foreign player on the roster. Other schools are more determined to supplement American ballers with international talent. New Mexico State boasts four Canadians, two Frenchmen and a South African. That’s half of their 14-man roster. St. Mary’s College, a small school in California, has five Australians, a 7-foot center from Trinidad, and a red-shirt (starter) freshman from Lithuania. St. Mary’s has long turned to Australia for talent. Their home games are televised in Australia and their current top-scorer, Matthew Dellavedova, is from Maryborough, Australia. He’ll probably join fellow Aussies and former No. 1 draft picks Andrew Bogut (Utah) and Kyrie Irving (Duke) in the NBA this season or next.

Listen to an interview with Dellavedova conducted by Australia’s Radio Sport National

The basketball tournament involves teams being placed in different regions, or brackets, across the country. As the tournament progresses, teams are eliminated in the process. Here at Latitude News we filled out our bracket with St. Mary’s coming up against archrivals Gonzaga University in the final. When the two teams met in the West Coast Conference tournament championship on March 5, only three of the 10 starters were born in America. St. Mary’s won by four in overtime then and we’re banking on a similar result in New Orleans.

Meanwhile, the NCAA women’s tournament brackets are also set. The women’s tourney will feature fewer foreign players than the men’s — only 40 from 15 countries. As in the men’s games, Canada and Australia are well represented. Latvia finished third with five. Most women’s teams have no foreign players but St. John’s of New York had the most, with four internationals (three from Latvia, one from France). In contrast to the men, no South American or Africans will be in the 2012 tournament.

Go to www.ncaa.com/MarchMadness  for the latest news on both the men and the women, on which colleges made it into the tournament and on the schedules,  the scores and more.

Good luck to all you bracketologists out there! Who do you think are the best foreign players in this year’s March Madness? 

Which foreign player will shine during the NCAA tourney?

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