RIGA, Latvia -- In the animated Australian cheering section here at the FIBA U19 World Championship, sitting two seats to the left of an inflatable, yellow kangaroo, and two seats to the right of a man who was playing a cowbell while wearing a kangaroo T-shirt, was a surprising sight: Butler forward Khyle Marshall, in his Team USA jersey, actively rooting on the Aussies against Brazil.
Australian point guard Jackson Aldridge was the reason why Marshall had asked his coaches if he could stay at Arena Riga following the U.S.' second-round win over Lithuania on Tuesday. "We just met for the first time yesterday," Marshall said of Aldridge, "but that's my teammate for the next three years. I'm going to be spending a lot of time with him."
Aldridge, who scored 21 points in the Emus' win over Poland on Wednesday (to up his tournament average to 8.2 points per game), committed to the Bulldogs in 2010 and will arrive on campus at the end of the summer. None of the next wave of Australian recruits headed to the NCAA is joining the crew at St. Mary's, which boasts four Aussies, including star guard Matthew Dellavedova, but only had one available scholarship in 2011. For key players on the Australian U19 team, which is 5-1 thus far in Latvia, the new destinations of choice are Butler, Boise State and New Mexico.
Butler's connection to down under took time to develop. Eleven years ago, the Aussie U19 coach, Damian Cotter, came to the States to take a tour of college practices in Indiana, and at Hinkle Fieldhouse he was introduced to a young director of basketball operations named Brad Stevens. They kept in touch periodically as they rose up the ranks -- "We were just muckrakers when we met," Cotter said -- and when Stevens called in hopes of placing a former Bulldogs player in Australia three years ago, Cotter asked him, what are you doing now? "I'm the head coach," Stevens said.
Cotter soon recommended that the Bulldogs recruit a promising point guard he had at New South Wales Institute of Sport, and that's how their courtship of Aldridge began. Stevens calls him a "neat kid with a bright mind," and Aldridge says he was attracted to Butler by the "overall lifestyle, how academics and basketball were important." By all indications, he'll fit in well with that program. And personnel-wise, after losing Shelvin Mack to the NBA, the Bulldogs can use another guard to relieve Ronald Nored and Chrishawn Hopkins at the point.
Butler assistant Terry Johnson was in the stands in Riga on Wednesday -- he was there for one day of games -- as were Aldridge's parents, Geoff and Sharon. Geoff was the one playing the cowbell. He had seen Marshall play before -- in Houston, at the Final Four, which Aldridge's parents attended while he stayed behind to train with the national team. They sat in the Butler section and stayed in the Butler fan hotel, and their experience there, Geoff said, "reconfirmed for me that Jackson made the right decision."
The other combo guard running the Australian U19 team, Hugh Greenwood (13.8 ppg, 3.5 rpg in Latvia), didn't have as smooth of an experience being recruited in the U.S. -- despite being the captain of the Australian Institute of Sport, which has traditionally been a basketball talent factory. He was in the airport on the way to the U.S. for visits last October when his top choice at the time, Arkansas, called to say it had just signed another player and would have to pass.
"They said I could still come and check out the school if I wanted," Greenwood said. "I was like, 'Not really,' but it's fine now. It all worked out pretty well."
Greenwood visited St. Mary's and New Mexico instead. He loved the Lobos, who already have one Australian, Cameron Bairstow, and are the alma mater of Aussie legend Luc Longley, and eventually signed with them this spring. Greenwood is a polished, 6-3 scorer who's the most college-ready prospect on the Emus, and should be able to compete for backcourt minutes at UNM this season due to Dairese Gary's departure. Playing in the Mountain West, Greenwood will face a few of his U19 teammates -- at Boise State, which is poised to become a serious player in Australian recruiting.
The Broncos have already signed two of the best Aussie U19 prospects: 6-foot-5 wing Anthony Drmic, the tournament's third-leading scorer at 19.0 points per game on 53.1 percent three-point shooting, and 6-5 shooting guard Igor Hadziomerovic, who's averaging 12.6 points on 42.9 percent long-range shooting. Second-year Boise State coach Leon Rice was losing seven seniors off last year's team, and turned to the AIS talent pool -- which he'd seen feed key players such as Patty Mills and Dellavedova to St. Mary's during his 11 years as a Gonzaga assistant -- for help. "We had a need," Rice said, "for guys who could come in and make an immediate impact."
Assistant coach Jeff Linder was able to identify Drmic and Hadziomerovic in Australia well before their breakout performances at the U19, paying a visit to AIS in 2010. The Broncos have since promoted former director of basketball operations John Rillie, an Australian who played at Gonzaga and then professionally in his home country, to a full-time assistant. He was the first college coach I spotted at the airport on the way into Riga, wearing an orange Boise State shirt, and the U19 tournament was one of his first recruiting assignments since the promotion. (Australian team members said that at least two other players, injured point guard Mitchell Norton and center Andrija Dumovic, were also being courted by the Broncos.)
Should Drmic and Hadziomerovic play as well in the Mountain West next season as they have in Riga, the Boise brand should gain even more traction among Aussie recruits. They're aware that it's known as a blue-turf football school, but, Drmic said, "We're going to change that. We're starting something new there." Starting Boise on the path, perhaps, to becoming the next St. Mary's.