Dec. 19, 2013
BIG EAST GOES GLOBAL
By Richard Finn
The BIG EAST world keeps getting bigger.
This season 16 student-athletes from 13 countries are on seven BIG EAST men's basketball teams as the league gets set to open conference play with a December 31st slate of marathon action featuring all 10 teams.
Players span the globe from Australia to Canada, from Nigeria and Cameroon to France and Croatia. They come from big cities like Sydney, Manchester and Paris and from tiny villages and towns like Makurdi (Nigeria) and Yaounde (Cameroon).
St Johns with five international players followed by Seton Hall with four lead the conference. The Pirates had five before Tom Maayan's return to Israel to fulfill his mandatory military obligation. Providence and DePaul have two with Georgetown, Butler and Villanova each sporting one international player on their rosters.
Will one of them emerge as another Dikembo Mutombo, who came out of the Congo to win a handful of BIG EAST honors at Georgetown before going on a NBA All-Star career?
St. John's sophomore 6-foot 9-inch center Chris Obekpa of Nigeria is a growing defensive standout, leading the nation in blocked shots last season and on track to do so again.
The BIG EAST reflects a growing trend across the country where a record number of international student-athletes - nearly 500 from Argentina to Germany, from Norway to Australia- are playing men's Division I basketball according to the NCAA.
This is up from just 135 from outside the country in 1993, the first year that the NCAA was keeping track.
There is an easy answer to why coaches are looking outside of the USA for players.
"Basketball is a global game and to be able to expand your recruiting base not only through the United States but overseas, I think a lot of people have taken a look at that," said Seton Hall coach Kevin Willard.
FEELING AT HOME
That Seton Hall and the Red Storm boast the most international roster is not by chance. Being close to New York City and its diverse population is a helpful tool in recruiting.
"Obviously the metropolitan area has a great diversity," said Willard. "There is a built in support system for the kids, it is a lot different than going out to South Dakota."
The Red Storm has two players from Nigeria, one from Guinea, France and the Dominican Republic. Head coach Steve Lavin embraces the team's diversity.
"I think it is a unique and fantastic situation as we have players who are learning from one another who come from these diverse backgrounds and share these differences, which makes this experience richer and more deeper and meaningful than a team of players from the same profile," said Lavin.
In New York you can find food from around the world, and somebody speaking your native language.
"When I go to Manhattan I hear so many people speaking French I feel like I am back in Paris. In New York it is a melting pot for every type of player," said St. Johns senior swingman Marc-Antoine Bourgault.
LOST IN TRANSLATION
A coach needs to be bit more patient in the development of the overseas players as they adjust to the fast and furious tempo of college basketball according to Willard.
"Probably the biggest challenge is that it takes a good year for the European players to get used to the speed of the game," said Willard. "It is not on the offensive end that they struggle at, it is more at getting used to the speed on the defensive end and the athleticism."
In the heat of a game or even practice, even small things can be magnified by the cultural and language differences.
"You got have to have patience," said Lavin. "In practice and coming out of timeout or in a game, barking out instructions there are times when things just get lost in translation."
However, Lavin welcomes the challenges and rewards of having such a diverse roster.
"I think it is a beautiful thing that we have all of these people from different places with the common thread basketball, "said Lavin. "It is similar to great musicians who come together to jam and look to make great music and all that jazz."
MORE THAN JUST A BASKETBALL EDUCATION
When they are finished with school, playing basketball will be only one part of the overall experience the international student-athletes will remember and use through the rest of their lives.
"The education is like a stepping stone,' said Obekpa.
"You have a chance to play a high level basketball and get a good education, it is way better for you for your life, " said Bourgault.
The time he has spent at Seton Hall is something that he will always treasure and use through the rest of his life according to Seton Hall junior forward Patrik Auda of the Czech Republic.
"All four years I have been here I have really enjoyed every moment. For me a guy from a small country, small city, to have the opportunity to be here in America and school like Seton Hall it is a great opportunity to get a great life experience. So far it probably has been the best thing that has happened to me in life so I am thankful for this."