Tennessee basketball follows Gonzaga in international recruits

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Tennessee coach Rick Barnes previews UT vs. No. 1 Gonzaga
Mike Wilson, USA TODAY NETWORK – Tennessee

Sunday’s basketball game between Tennessee and Gonzaga will remind us what an international game college basketball has become. Four countries will be represented on the two rosters.

Tennessee has players from Canada (Kyle Alexander) and France (Yves Pons). That might be diverse for the SEC, but Gonzaga has long been in a different world when it comes to international recruiting.  The Bulldogs began signing foreign players way back in the early 1970s, and their far-flung recruiting has contributed significantly to it becoming an elite basketball program.

Gonzaga’s roster includes players from Serbia, Japan and France.

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Post play could be especially international, matching up Gonzaga’s Rui Hachimura against UT’s Alexander. Hachimura is from Japan, and Alexander, from Canada. The Bulldogs also can bring 6-foot-11 Filip Petrusev of Serbia off the bench.

Hachimura is Gonzaga’s most intriguing international player. You can google “basketball stars from Japan” to understand why. They’re as rare in Division I as sub-6-foot power forwards.

The 6-8 Hachimura hasn’t taken long to distinguish himself this season. He is averaging 21.9 points and was featured in Sports Illustrated after scoring 20 points in Gonzaga’s upset of Duke last month.

He’s hardly the only problem the No. 1 Bulldogs will pose for Tennessee. Gonzaga has four players averaging in double figures and isn’t lacking in either size or 3-point shooters.

It also has a longstanding record for success. The Bulldogs haven’t won fewer than 24 games since 1996-97 and are on the way up. They have averaged 32 victories for the previous six seasons under coach Mark Few.

There’s a foreign accent to that success.

Gonzaga’s list of notable international players begins with Jean Claude LeFebvre of France in 1957. Nicknamed the “Eiffel Rifle,” the 7-3 center was drafted by the Minneapolis Lakers but never played in the NBA.

Former Gonzaga star Ronny Turiaf of France played 10 years in the NBA. Former Gonzaga players Domantas Sabonis, a Lithuanian, and Kelly Olynyk of Canada are now playing in the NBA.

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Gonzaga’s is a more appealing destination for foreign players than it was when the “Eiffel Rifle” fired his first shot. The school now has a Global Bridge Program, which enables international students to develop English efficiency while earning credits at a discounted tuition rate.

Tennessee also has programs that could make it an appealing destination for international students. The English Language Institute helps with language transition while UT’s Center for International Education assists students with such things as visas and taxes.

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Also, the Thornton Athletics Student Life Center provides programming designed for international athletes.

“We have a great support system in place (for international players),” Tennessee coach Rick Barnes said. “We can handle that.”

The Vols are capitalizing on it, too. 

“We’re involved with (an) international player now,” Barnes said. “Once you’ve had success with international players, the word can spread pretty quickly.”

Gonzaga can vouch for that.

John Adams is a senior columnist. He may be reached at 865-342-6284 or [email protected] Follow him at: twitter.com/johnadamskns.

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