Struggling college men's basketball teams look overseas to fill tall order
AP Sports Writer
LINCOLN, Neb. — The realities of recruiting for a men's basketball program like Nebraska roll off coach Doc Sadler's tongue.
"You have to have good big guys in this league. There aren't that many over here. To get a good one is difficult," he said. "That's the reason I went over there."
Over there is overseas. The Huskers have lost seven of their last eight games and are last in the Big 12, but Sadler is counting on three international players in the program and a fourth on the way to be the foundation for better days.
Nebraska is among 214 Division I programs with at least one non-American player, a 71 percent jump from the 125 schools just 15 years ago, according to STATS LLC. Among players who have appeared in at least one game this season, 8.4 percent are foreign-born - and if you're talking about players 6 feet 10 and taller, that number increases to 31 percent.
Big men from Europe, South America and Australia tend to have be tter skill sets than their American counterparts, coaches say, largely because they spend more time practicing. Coaches on those continents also tend to be less likely to accommodate a player who wants to experiment at other positions.
"In America, they've been taught it's cool to be 6-10 and shoot 3s," Sadler said. "Last time I checked, the most important position on the floor, if not the point guard, is the guy who's going to play close to the basket. A good inside player is worth every penny that the NBA pays.
"Overseas guys are more traditional. If you're a low-post player, you're a low-post player. You don't try to be a wing."
The pool of big men, by nature, is shallow. Fewer than 5 percent of American males grow to be taller than 6-2, government health statistics show.
And the best of the U.S.-born big men aren't going to choose Nebraska - a fact Sadler readily acknowledges.
In the past two years, defending national champion North Carolina , for example, has landed five McDonald's All-Americans who are 6-9 or taller.
Kentucky, Duke, Kansas and the other power programs get their share, too.
Foreign frontcourt players began to gain traction in college basketball in the 1980s, when Hakeem Olajuwon of Nigeria led Houston's "Phi Slama Jamma" to three straight Final Fours. In the '90s, Dikembe Mutombo of Zaire was playing for Georgetown on his way to becoming a seven-time NBA All-Star.
Fans don't blink anymore when they see a hard-to-pronounce name on the roster.
One of the best big men in the country this season is Radford's Artsiom Parakhouski of Belarus. The 6-11 center ranks among the nation's top 10 scorers at better than 22 points a game, and he's second in rebounding at almost 13 a game.
Bosnian center Adnan Hodzic is scoring 21 points a game for Lipscomb, and 7-footer Hamady Ndiaye of Senegal, one of a increasing number of Africans in college basketball, is blocking almost 4 sho ts a game for Rutgers.
Northeastern University has a nation-leading six foreigners on its roster. Gonzaga, Hawaii, New Mexico State, St. Mary's, Stetson, TCU and Valparaiso have five apiece.
At Nebraska, it started with Australian center Aleks Maric, who finished his career two years ago as the third Big 12 player with 1,500 points and 1,000 rebounds.
Sadler's staff has made six overseas recruiting trips in three years. This season the Huskers start 6-11 freshman center Jorge Brian Diaz of Puerto Rico, and one of their top reserves is 6-8 freshman forward Christian Standhardinger of Germany. Another German, 6-11 center Christopher Niemann, is rehabbing his knee and will join the Huskers next season, as will 6-11, 315-pound Brazilian center Andre Almeida.
Five of the bottom six teams in the Big 12 - Oklahoma is the exception - have at least one foreign-born big man. Colorado is breaking in 6-11 freshman Shane Harris-Tunks, who joined fellow Australian guard Nate Tomlinson to Boulder.
"In our case, we're not established yet in the Big 12 and you can't fight the top dogs for the recruits here," said Colorado assistant and chief recruiter Derrick Clark. "You have to think outside of the box and go places where the powers aren't normally. If you're in the Top 25, there are plenty of big men over here. There aren't enough of them for everyone stateside."
Though coaches are prompted to go overseas by outstanding centers and power forwards, they always are on the lookout for players at the other three positions as well.
"Typically when I go over, I will predominantly see taller kids, and other kids are a fringe benefit," New Mexico State coach Marvin Menzies said. "If I saw a 6-6 kid with a 42-inch vertical, I could still get excited about that one."