Texas Tech, Virginia give NCAA final an international accent
MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — The plains of West Texas are a long way from the bustling piazzas and porticos of northern Italy, where Davide Moretti was raised in a soccer culture and basketball was just a niche.
NBA fans in Italy can now look to the likes of Danilo Gallinari and his 20-point scoring average for the Los Angeles Clippers in a league that has made major strides in Europe since Moretti was born in Bologna 21 years ago.
The college game, however, has been a decidedly foreign concept overseas, with the term March Madness likely to elicit strange looks even if correctly translated.
Well, there's hardly been an NCAA championship with more of a global presence than this one, with Moretti's Texas Tech Red Raiders facing the Virginia Cavaliers in the title game Monday night. Eight players are from other countries.
Moretti, the sophomore starting guard for Texas Tech , once played on an Italian junior national team with Virginia forward Francesco Badocchi, who has redshirted his first season.
"We're the first Italian guys who have ever made it to the Final Four," Moretti said, "so it's kind of a big-time thing right now back in Italy for basketball."
According to data calculated by digital content producer Hero Sports, of the 1,036 players in this year's NCAA Tournament, 117 listed a home country other than the United States. Canada (23) contributed the most, followed by Australia (14). Seventeen other countries produced at least two players, including seven from African nations.
For an American kid, a shooting session in the driveway after dinner could naturally include a singing of "One Shining Moment" and an idyllic vision of cutting down the nets at the national championship game. Not so much in other countries, where the presence of soccer and the significant time zone difference have long been more than enough to keep college basketball in the dark.
"When the games are on, it's usually when we're at school and stuff like that, so we don't get to watch it because we're doing other things," said Kody Stattmann, another Virginia redshirt and a native of Australia.
Starting forward Mamadi Diakite, whose buzzer-beating shot sent the Cavaliers to overtime in the Elite Eight where they outlasted Purdue, has become a national hero in Guinea. In Africa, though, his family and friends have to settle for watching replays.
"The day after the game, I get texts about it," Diakite said.
For many of these international players, then, the desire to drape a gold, silver or bronze medal around their neck can be a bigger goal than winning an NCAA title with their college teams, as exhilarating as that can be.
"Playing in an Olympics is something that everybody dreams of," said Moretti, who will try to make the Italian national team for the FIBA World Cup this summer.
Moretti played on junior teams in European and world championships, burnishing his credentials as one of the top international prospects before choosing Texas Tech over Indiana, Connecticut and Utah.
Badocchi moved to the U.S. earlier to further develop his game in high school in Kansas, his mother's home state. Her work in the fashion industry brought her to Milan, where she met Badocchi's father.
"Since my family was from Kansas, I knew about KU, but I didn't really watch March Madness or anything like that," Badocchi said. "Even coming to Virginia, I knew it was a very good school, but I didn't really know anything about the ACC or anything."
The ACC is quite the challenge, of course, and the Cavaliers have recently cracked the conference elite with Duke and North Carolina under coach Tony Bennett. Perhaps one of the ways they'll be able to stay there for the long term is with these international pipelines that have not only opened with a new talent source but created stronger chemistry off the court.
"You learn to appreciate and respect one another," Bennett said.
Also playing for the Cavaliers is fifth-year senior center Jack Salt of New Zealand. Another redshirt, center Francisco Caffaro, is from Argentina. Freshman guard Kihei Clark is from California but has a Filipino mother. Diakite, a fourth-year junior, recalled having to use his smartphone to translate words in some of his earlier conversations with teammates.
"At first, I think it's very hard if I were from here to accept someone to take someone from somewhere else that doesn't speak my language. I'd have to buy in a lot of time to talk to them," Diakite said. "But for them, being able to take their time and talk to me so I could be on the same layer as them is tremendous. Everyone has done such a good job of taking me in the circle."
Texas Tech will add two more international big men to the roster next season: Russel Tchewa from Cameroon and Andrei Savrasov of Russia. In addition to Moretti, there is fifth-year senior guard Brandone Francis (Dominican Republic) and freshman forward Josh Mballa (France).
"We try to be a family for these guys because they come here far away from home. That's what I did for the other guys who did to me, which was such a great thing for me because I felt like I wasn't alone," Moretti said.
Yes, it's hard not to find a friend in West Texas.
"Everything is bigger. Everything is wider," Moretti said. "It's just a different culture. I like it. It's my home. The people are so nice. I live in the gym basically, but when I step out of the gym the people are so nice."