Down Underdogs

A pair of Australians, A.J. Ogilvy of Vanderbilt and Patty Mills of St. Mary's (which suits up four Aussies), lifted conference also-rans into contenders
January 28, 2008

POETRY IN motion.That's what Patrick (Patty) Mills says he and Andrew Ogilvy created as they ranthe court together at the Australian Institute of Sport last year. Mills wouldpush the ball on a break, whistle to Ogilvy and loft an alley-oop pass towardthe rim. With perfect, practiced timing, Ogilvy would appear on the wing: step,catch, dunk. ¬∂ "It really was like that," says Ogilvy, now a freshmancenter at Vanderbilt. "I don't know how, but we were always able to findeach other." ¬∂ The two mates are 2,000 miles apart now on the other side ofthe world, but they still know where to find each other—on TV, on the Internet,in the headlines, filling up NCAA box scores. "After a game he'll send me amessage, 'Congrats on the win,'" says Mills, now a freshman point guard atSt. Mary's in Moraga, Calif. "I'll send him one: 'Great job, saw you onTV—in America, of all places.'"

Ever since AndrewBogut, a 7-footer out of Melbourne, was named college basketball's 2005national player of the year as a sophomore at Utah and went No. 1 in thatJune's NBA draft, America, of all places, has become the destination of choicefor many of Australia's best young hoops talents. According to BasketballAustralia, the organizing body for the sport Down Under, the number of Aussieson college rosters has risen tenfold from a decade ago, with some 200Australian men and women playing in the U.S. this year, including 33 in themen's NCAA Division I. Among them is a crew of high-achieving upperclassmenthat includes three-time All--Big 12 honoree Aaron Bruce, a 6'3" seniorpoint guard at Baylor whose smart, selfless play has helped spark the 15--2Bears' revival; Nebraska senior All-America candidate Aleks Maric, a 6'11",275-pound center whose 16.6 points and 8.2 rebounds a game through Sunday wereleading the 11--5 Huskers; 7-foot junior center Luke Nevill, who was pacing10--6 Utah with 13.6 points and 7.3 rebounds a game; and, most prominently,6'10", 270-pound junior center Aron Baynes of sixth-ranked Washington State(15--1). Told last spring by Cougars coach Tony Bennett that his team wouldonly be as good as he was, Baynes, a brawny former rugby player fromCairns—"He's a beast," says Washington forward Jon Brockman—dropped 20pounds and is now a critical contributor in Pullman, averaging 12.1 points and6.4 rebounds a game.

But no Australian,not even Bogut in his day, has had the immediate impact of Ogilvy and Mills,who have lifted two rarely celebrated teams into the limelight and conferencetitle contention. Ogilvy, a 6'10", 250-pound 19-year-old from Sydney, isVanderbilt's first bona fide, game-altering center since Will Perdue graduated20 years ago. He has great hands and quick feet, and thanks in part to thelessons he learned going up against Baynes daily at the AIS for a year, he'swell-schooled in the subtleties of post positioning. "He is asfundamentally sound as any big guy his age I've ever seen," says Vanderbiltcoach Kevin Stallings. And rare for a big guy of any age, Ogilvy can shoot freethrows: He gets to the line more than seven times a game and makes good onnearly 80% of his shots. Through Sunday he was averaging 18.5 points and 6.8rebounds a game for the 14th-ranked Commodores, who were off to a surprising17--2 start.

"He's asdominant a big man as there is in the SEC," says Tennessee coach BrucePearl, whose Vols nevertheless held Ogilvy to 12 points in an 80--60 win lastThursday. "His size, his athleticism, his ability to use his body—he's thereal deal."

So is the19-year-old Mills, a creative playmaker who announced his arrival in Americawith a stunning 37-point performance in the Gaels' 99--87 upset of then12th-ranked Oregon on Nov. 20. His speed, endurance (he ran a 4:52 mile thisfall) and thread-the-needle passes, not to mention his 15.1 points and 4.1assists a game, helped St. Mary's score its first AP ranking in 18 years—No. 24in mid-December—though the school has since fallen out of the Top 25.

"Mills is oneof the five best point guards in the country right now," says Santa Claracoach Kerry Keating, who watched Mills make 16 points, six assists, threeboards and two steals in a 76--45 Gaels win on Jan. 12. "He's got anintangible feel for how to play the position. The last three point guards Irecruited [while an assistant at UCLA]—Jordan Farmar, Darren Collison andRussell Westbrook—are in the NBA or are going to be. He's as good or betterthan all of them."

To understand howtwo such rare talents arrived here with no fanfare and yet have made their markin one of the strongest freshman classes, it's worth reviewing the record ofAustralian-American basketball migration, which has historically been moretrickle than wave. Aussies have been playing basketball at U.S. colleges for atleast 50 years, but with few exceptions—Andrew Gaze, who played on Seton Hall's1989 Final Four team; Luc Longley, a two-time all-conference player at NewMexico from 1987 to '91; Luke Schenscher, who helped Georgia Tech reach the2004 NCAA title game—they played in relative obscurity until Bogut's successgrabbed people's attention on both sides of the Pacific. "Then thefloodgates to Australia opened," says Washington State assistant BenJohnson, who recruited Baynes. "Everybody started going down there to findthe next Bogut."

Most recruiters onthat hunt head straight to the Institute of Sport, Australia's elitedevelopment center for basketball and 25 other sports, in the capital city ofCanberra. There the country's best young male and female hoopsters train threetimes a day and play against international competition and domestic pro(women's) and semipro (men's) teams while attending a nearby public highschool. (The AIS players maintain their NCAA eligibility because they arestrictly amateurs.) By the time U.S. colleges come trolling, the athletes havealready been living away from home for one or two years, and have gotten astrong education in nutrition and the game's fundamentals. "They arefurther ahead than high school kids coming into college because of how theytrain and who they play against," says Tony Bennett. "They won't beoverwhelmed by the intensity and duration of a college season. That puts themahead of the curve quite a bit."

As a bonus,Aussies are practically hard-wired by their egalitarian culture to becollaborative. "They are great team guys; they are not into their ownstats," says St. Mary's coach Randy Bennett. "If you try to sell themon the idea that they'll be all-league this or first-team that, they don't buyit. They aren't comfortable with that."

As Aussies havebecome more appealing to U.S. colleges, college has become more appealing toAussies. "A lot of our players see college as a chance to go away, maturephysically and further develop their games," says AIS men's coach MartyClarke.

Living in acountry where basketball ranks below cricket and rugby in popularity and whereNCAA games are rarely broadcast, most Australians don't grasp the collegebasketball pecking order, and that can be an advantage for nontraditionalpowers. "They don't know the difference between St. Mary's and UCLA, and wedon't tell them," says Randy Bennett. "But they understand that gettingrecruited by the biggest school is not the most important thing. You have todevelop a relationship. They are leaving their homes, their families. They haveto be certain it's a good fit."

Ogilvy was pursuedby about 15 schools, Mills by about six. "Here's what typically happenswith the AIS kids," says St. Mary's assistant David Patrick, who grew upand played professionally in Australia. "American coaches go to theInternet, and they look at the AIS [roster]. Then they recruit the kids who aretall. It's not usually a place you go to get a point guard, because you canfind those kids here."

GAELS COACH RandyBennett is an exception. He has long tapped the Aussie pipeline for players ofall sizes. He signed Daniel Kickert, a 6'10" center, in 2002 and AdamCaporn, a 6'3" guard, a year earlier. Two other AIS products, guard CarlinHughes and forward Lucas Walker, joined the team this year after transferringfrom Montana State--Billings, and a third, center Ben Allen, is sitting outthis year after leaving Indiana. Bennett was the only head coach who visitedMills's parents, Benny and Yvonne, but when Patty boarded a flight to visitU.S. schools in the fall of 2006, Utah was his first stop. While he was in theair, however, Utah got a commitment from another guard and no longer had ascholarship available. Mills then flew to the Bay Area, decided he liked St.Mary's and ended up signing there. "I'm sure there are a hundred Division Iprograms that are kicking themselves for not recruiting him harder," saysWashington State's Johnson.

Utah and thencoach Ray Giacoletti also recruited Ogilvy but gave up on him when 6'9"junior college center Nemanja Calasan committed to the Utes. That same day,Giacoletti happened to be on the phone with Stallings, a good friend."Kevin asked, 'Is there anybody else out there in the big spot?' I told himto follow up on Ogilvy because we couldn't do anything with him," saysGiacoletti, who's now an assistant at Gonzaga.

Ogilvy choseVanderbilt over New Mexico, UNLV and St. Mary's, and his presence in the middlehas helped get open looks on the perimeter for the Commodores' guards. Thefriendly, bespectacled Aussie is beloved in Nashville for his work ethic, hiseasy humor and his utter lack of a sense of entitlement. No matter how hardStallings has been on him or his teammates, Ogilvy thanks his coach after everypractice.

Ogilvy, who hasgone by A.J. ever since he was three months old, when his older brother,Damien, and sister, Lisa, bought him an Air Jordan hat that said aj23, played ahalf-dozen sports growing up and was promising enough in tennis that Damien, atennis coach, thought he might star in that. "I tried to balance the two,but basketball ended up taking over," says Ogilvy.

After representingNew South Wales in the U-18 National Basketball Championships, Ogilvy earned ascholarship to the AIS when he was 16. His dorm neighbor was the 15-year-oldMills, another prodigy. (Most players start at age 17 and stay for two years;Mills and Ogilvy both attended for three.) Mills had started playing basketball11 years earlier at the Shadows Basketball Club, a team in Canberra forindigenous people that Benny, a Torres Strait Islander, and his mom, Yvonne, anAborigine, helped found 20 years ago and still run. At age 4 1/2, Patty wasplaying with the Shadows' under-10s. "We'd let him in for a minute or twoat the end of every half because he was really keen to get on the court,"says Benny.

Like Ogilvy, Millsplayed other sports, but also like Ogilvy, his childhood dream was to play forthe Boomers in the Olympics. No indigenous player has made the AustralianOlympic basketball team since Benny's cousin Dan Morseu, Mills's role model,played shooting guard for the Boomers at the 1980 and '84 Games.

Mills took a steptoward realizing his dream this summer when he became the youngest-ever memberof the Aussie national team, scoring 17 points in a win against New Zealandthat sealed a berth for Australia in Beijing. He has a good shot at making theOlympic team next summer, and beyond that, after college, he hopes to play inthe NBA. There is a whole community of people back home for whom he wants toset new standards, new goals.

"The way otherbasketballers have looked up to Andrew Bogut, I hope indigenous people willlook up to me," he says. "If he hadn't taken that path, I don't thinkmany Australians would have come over to college. So now, knowing that he's inthe NBA, other players are saying, 'Let me have a go at it; let me try it tosee if I can do that.' That's exactly the message I hope to send to theindigenous community."

There should be noworries on that count. As Ogilvy and the Gaels can attest, Mills is usuallyright on target when giving an assist.

Aussies are practically hardwired by their egalitarianculture to be collaborative. "They're great TEAM PLAYERS," saysBennett.


Down Under Wonders

A gallery of college basketball's top Australianimports.


PHOTOPhotograph by Dustin SnipesPLAY MATES From left, Aussies Mills (13), Allen, Hughes and Walker are a Gaels force; Ogilvy (4) has been dandy for Vandy. PHOTORIC TAPIA/ICON SMI[See caption above] PHOTOAL TIELEMANS[See caption above] PHOTOBOB ROSATOEXPATRIATE'S GAME The 6'10" Ogilvy's strong hands and quick feet have given Vanderbilt its best post threat in 20 years.