Big Sky Conference

International influence trickles down to Big Sky basketball


Jim Hayford likens recruiting abroad to fishing.

If you go to the convenient lake a few miles outside of your home town, you are sure to see a couple of hooks in the water. If you are willing to pack a few days’ food and trek further away, you will more likely find a pristine lake. And there, might be just the prized fish you have been looking for.

Hayford, Eastern Washington’s fifth-year head coach, knew the strategy of those who preceded him in Cheney was flawed. Hayford is the 8th head coach during the program’s Division I era. All but Ray Giacoletti (2000-2004) were fired.

“By the end of this year, I will have coached more games than anyone in Division I history at Eastern and it’s only been five years,” Hayford said. “It’s kind of crazy. All those guys knew basketball probably a lot better than I did. But if you keep going to Seattle and the West Coast junior college market, over and over to recruit, I don’t know if you are going to be able to have many different results.”

Eastern Washington won the Big Sky Conference tournament hosted in Missoula last season/by Brooks Nuanez

Eastern Washington won the Big Sky Conference tournament hosted in Missoula last season/by Brooks Nuanez

Hayford decided to go fishing (recruiting) on the other side of the globe. His unorthodox strategy has helped EWU establish itself as one of the top programs in the Big Sky Conference. Last season, Eastern won a program-record 26 games and qualified for the NCAA Tournament for the second time in program history. EWU’s roster featured seven international players, including four from Australia last season. Five current Eagles hail from down under and six total are not from America.

“If you are not at Duke, you are not at Kentucky, all those top schools, the top X amount of players are not going to those mid-major schools,” Eastern Washington star power forward Venky Jois, a native of Boronia, Australia, said earlier this season. “So if you want to crack into those Sweet 16-type players, you have to get the best players even if that doesn’t mean the best Americans.”

The West Side of Washington — west of the Cascade Mountains, including Seattle and Tacoma — has produced more than 60 NBA players in the last three decades. Just one, Indiana Pacers guard Rodney Stuckey, attended Eastern Washington. Before Hayford took over, the Eagles qualified for just one NCAA Tournament in Giacoletti’s final season since joining the ranks of Division I in 1983. Even with Stuckey, an NBA lottery pick from Kentwood in Seattle’s King County, averaging more than 24 points for two seasons, the Eagles were a Big Sky Conference afterthought.

EWU forward Venky Jois/by EWU Athletics

EWU forward Venky Jois/by EWU Athletics

During a decade as an assistant at Azusa Pacific in the 1990s, Hayford developed a relation with Cal Poly-Pomona head coach Tim Rapp. Rapp eventually married an Australian and after the couple had their second child, Rapp moved to Australia.

After 11 seasons at Division III Whitworth, Hayford became Eastern Washington’s head coach. Rapp was one of his first phone calls. His old friend told him he was heavily connected to the club basketball scene in Australia and could help him establish a presence on the other side of the globe.

Rapp also happened to be Randy Bennett’s college roommate at UC San Diego. Bennett has been the head coach at Saint Mary’s of California since 2001. Bennett has led Saint Mary’s to five NCAA Tournament berths despite playing in the West Coast Conference, a mid-major league dominated by Gonzaga. The coach has employed arguably the strongest Australian connection of any Division I program, building his team’s success around star players like Patty Mills and Matthew Dellavedova.

“I knew we had to do something, but planning to recruit Australia created a huge problem because Eastern said, ‘Your international recruiting budget is zero, nothing,’ so that meant we were going to have to fund raise hard out of our own booster club,” Hayford said. “The problem was there wasn’t one. But fortunately having been in the community for 10 years (Whitworth is in the greater Spokane area as well), there were a lot of people who got behind us right at the get go. That gave us the funds to send assistant coaches over.”

UM forward Martin Breunig/by UM Athletics

UM forward Martin Breunig/by UM Athletics

Eastern’s Australian pipeline began with Jois, a startlingly aggressive 6-foot-8 power forward that Montana State head coach Brian Fish likens to a bull in a China shop. As a freshman, Jois made an immediate impact, averaging 12.3 points and nine rebounds per game in earning Big Sky Freshman of the Year honors. He has earned first-team All-Big Sky honors each of the last season seasons, including a stellar year last season in which he averaged 16.7 points on 61 percent shooting and 7.7 rebounds to compliment guard Tyler Harvey, an NBA Draft pick who led Division I in scoring.

Jois’ breakout in Cheney was the beginning of what has become a strong Aussie flavor for the Eagles. Junior Felix Van Hofe has emerged as one of the deadliest shooters in the league. His 55 made 3-pointers are the second-most in the Big Sky. Australia products Michael Wearne, Jesse Hunt and Geremy McKay are all waiting their turn to contribute.

“Now because Venky had success, it’s opened doors and given us a lot of credibility,” Hayford said.

Eastern Washington parlayed its international recruiting strategy into a ticket to the Big Dance. But the Eagles are not the only school in the Big Sky or Division I employing a similar tactic. The Big Sky is home to 18 international players, including six for EWU, three each for Idaho State and Montana and two each from Montana State and Weber State. Martin Breunig, a front-runner for league MVP honors as the star of the Grizzlies, hails from Leverkusen, Germany. Fabijan Krslovic and Jack Lopez give the Griz an Australian influence.

Idaho State’s Ben Wilson is also an Australian, while the Bengals also have a Chilean (Geno Luzcando) and a Serbian (Novak Topalovic). Weber State’s Kiko Stavrev is from Bulgaria and Cody John is from Toronto, perhaps the North American city that has risen to the status of hotbed more than any other in recent years. Northern Colorado’s Miles Seward is also from Toronto, the city that produced Anthony Bennett and Andrew Wiggins, the last two No. 1 selections in the NBA Draft.

Sac State guard Jeff Wu/by Brooks Nuanez

Sac State guard Jeff Wu/by Brooks Nuanez

Sacramento State’s Jeff Wu lists his home town as Taipei City, Taiwan but prepped at Modesto Christian in California. EWU’s Bodgan Bliznyuk is similar, listing his hometown as Lutsk, Ukraine despite starting first grade in Federal Way, Washington.

“The No. 1 thing that has influenced the recruitment of international guys is the NCAA has done a better job of knowing what it takes for a foreign player to transfer in and play,” Montana State head coach Brian Fish said. “The eligibility center has gotten that done. We are even trying to address it more now because their transition for classes has been smoothed out so it’s an easier process to get them.”

Fish’s Bobcats currently have two international players: Sarp Gobeloglu, a native of Ankara, Turkey and Tyson Kanseyo, a native of Malden, The Netherlands. Last season, Fish also had Bradley Fisher, a 7-foot native of the United Kingdom, on his roster. The Bobcats hold a verbal commitment from fellow Brit and former Fisher teammate Kavell Bigby-Williams, a 6-foot-10 jumping jack currently starring at Gillette College in Wyoming. The Bobcats also signed Herald Frey, a point guard from Oslo, Norway.

“That’s one of the reasons I have (UK native) Chris Haslam on staff is he played 13 years over in Europe so we have some connections to get it,” Fish said. “I think overall, basketball has truly become the global sport. They are getting good coaching and production and you have to look at that if you are in a state that doesn’t produce a bunch of Division I players.”

EWU stretch-frward Felix Van Hofe/by EWU Athletics

EWU stretch-frward Felix Van Hofe/by EWU Athletics

Since 2010, 3,428 international players have played either NCAA college basketball, in the NBA or both. The Pac 12 features 19 international players and the Mountain West features 18 more. Seven of the 12 teams in the Big Sky feature an international team member while Northern Arizona, Southern Utah, Idaho, North Dakota and Portland State do not.

“Each league around the world, different countries have different styles of play,” Jois said. “From Australia, you really more see a much more intense, hard-nosed type basketball. It might not be as skilled as far as athleticism but you see guys who are so tough with fight. Other leagues, you see guys who are ridiculous shooters. Some leagues have such a high IQ for the game, especially in these other countries.

“In Australia, if you are a youngster that has talent, you can play as high as you want. You can be a 15 year old playing with veterans who have been to college and back with other imports, American imports and guys who have far more experience than American guys playing with his peers or high schoolers. You can get a few guys who really know the game who can bring something different than the typical American basketball player.”

Gobelglu is a prime example of the game-changing ability a unique player can provide. The 6-foot-10, 200-pound junior can stretch the floor as well as anyone in the league. He is averaging 10.5 points per game in conference play and shooting 42 percent from beyond the 3-point arc.

Montana State forward Sarp Gobeloglu/by Brooks Nuanez

Montana State forward Sarp Gobeloglu/by Brooks Nuanez

But he also is a prime example of the growing pains a non-native English speaker can endure. Gobeloglu has had a hard time acclimating to the communication factors essential during conference play at the Division I level, particularly defensively.

“It’s hard to understand what Sarp says,” MSU sophomore Zach Green said with an understanding smile. “It’s just hard. I don’t get frustrated but I do get annoyed sometimes. But he has made such huge strides.”

Kanseyo has been in America for three years. He likens English to the Dutch like Spanish is to American high school students. He said he grew up watching American movies and listening to American music, so the language curve isn’t nearly as steep.

“My first year, no one could understand me ever,” Kanseyo said. “Now some people tell me I don’t really have an accent. I don’t believe that is true (laughs).”

The 6-foot-9 Kanseyo said the American game has a much higher level of physicality than the one he grew up playing in The Netherlands. The amount of body contact Fish demands from Kanseyo has been a stark adjustment. So has being so far away from his family.

“My momma,” Kanseyo said of what he misses the most. “I miss her. She takes care of me. She is proud of me but she wants me to come back as soon as possible so she can baby me.

MSU forward Tyson Kanseyo/by Brooks Nuanez

MSU forward Tyson Kanseyo/by Brooks Nuanez

“It’s never fun to be that far away from your family but the biggest part that helped me is I’ve always been close with my teammates from the first year. It’s funny to see how your teammates become more than friends, like family to me. I’ve known my teammates for six months and this is the closest I’ve ever been to guys. That makes it a lot easier. My teammates are there for me, my coach is there for me.”

Aside from any language barrier, retention is the biggest challenge when it comes to international players, Fish said. Basketball is a global game with leagues filled with skills players cropped up from around the world. Fish put a priority on bringing Gobeloglu and Kanseyo to campus in the summer to start the acclimation process early. He will do the same next year with Frey and Bigby-Williams.

“You have to get them in here, get them adjusted, get them feeling well because for a lot of foreign guys, trusting the coaches is the most important part because that’s why they are here,” Fish said. “You have to develop a different type of relationship with them and let them know you are trying to help them because they have the option to always go home and play pro ball. Maybe not at the level of…people think pro, they think the NBA. But they can play a pro ball level and get paid there and they can make money and survive in their country. They can definitely make that kind of big impact over here too.”

Photo attribution noted. All Rights Reserved.

About Colter Nuanez

Colter Nuanez is the co-founder and senior writer for Skyline Sports. After spending six years in the newspaper industry with stops at the Missoulian, the Ellensburg Daily Record and the Bozeman Daily Chronicle, the former Washington Newspaper Association Sportswriter of the Year and University of Montana Journalism School graduate ('09) has cultivated a deep passion for sports journalism during his 13-year career covering the Big Sky Conference. In August of 2014, Colter and brother Brooks merged their passions of writing and art to found Skyline Sports.

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