For Marist men’s basketball, an international recruiting tradition is at a crossroads

Marist Athletics
0 Comments

College basketball recruitment in the United States can be a years-long, expensive journey that sometimes ends with disappointment. High school hopefuls spend several summers trekking across the country, taking the court for travel and AAU teams just for a chance to be noticed by Division I coaches. The culmination of these efforts is a scholarship to play at the highest collegiate level.

For those that are recruited by Division I institutions, it can be a dream come true. The continuous sacrifices made to showcase your talent in front of coaches from around the country has finally paid off. For others, a lack of offers from top-tier schools can make the entire process seem worthless.

Imagine avoiding the grueling process altogether and being recruited through a screen. Athletes aspiring to play overseas use highlight videos, Facebook messages and Skype sessions to communicate with coaching staffs. While competition for a spot on a Division I roster is as fierce as ever in the United States, international students can be recruited through a laptop or cell phone screen without even stepping foot on a court to impress coaches.

College basketball programs often do not have the budget or resources to travel overseas to watch a player live, or fly the athlete to a workout session in the U.S. The difficulty of judging players based on a highlight tape strays most away from international recruiting. Some coaches take advantage of the niche market and bolster their roster with top-notch foreign talent.

Marist College in Poughkeepsie, New York sported six international players on their men’s basketball roster last season. European natives comprised more than a third of the roster, representing Denmark, Sweden, Iceland, Montenegro, Italy and Finland.

International recruits pass up an opportunity to play under a contract in European professional leagues for the chance to play among United States competition. For players at Marist and other mid-major schools within the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference, an American education is often at the front of mind.

Denmark’s David Knudsen started all 30 games he played in last season. (Marist Athletics)

“When you’re in Europe, you can try and receive pro contracts, but you can play pro basketball for many years. College is a one-time experience,” said David Knudsen, a 6-foot-5-inch rising senior from Copenhagen.

He played for the Vaerlose Basketball Klub in Denmark’s top league during the 2014-15 season. Injuries in consecutive summers leading up to college recruitment sidelined Knudsen, but a liaison from Denmark established a contact with Marist. Youth national teams in Europe can be a goldmine for college coaches, but only for those willing to take the risk.

Head coach Mike Maker was fired on March 5, after totaling a 28-97 overall record since he took the job before the 2014-15 season. John Dunne, hired on April 3, after 12 years heading Saint Peter’s, does not have the international recruiting experience that Marist has become accustomed to for decades. “That’s not an avenue that my staff has used,” he said. “When you’re recruiting, you don’t want to spend a ton of money on players that you might not be able to get.”

Dunne compiled a 153-225 overall record with the Peacocks. He has found a new home just over 80 miles north of Jersey City, but he already has a head start on his new gig after coaching against Marist twice each season. “I know they have seen the Saint Peter’s program from a distance and competed against us, so they understand our expectations,” Dunne said.

Unlike his predecessor, the defensive-minded coach centers his recruiting focus on the Northeast. “That doesn’t mean we won’t venture out to the Midwest, West Coast or even internationally if we have a good lead,” he said. “But we are certainly going to pinpoint more recruiting in the Northeast.”

Tobias Sjoberg, a 6-foot-9-inch rising junior from Malmo, Sweden, was recruited to Marist under the conditions of Maker and his staff. “He told me that he wanted me to start and add some size to the team,” Sjoberg said. After acquiring interest from assistant coach Andy Johnston while playing in the U-18 FIBA European Championships and for Sweden’s U-20 National Team, Sjoberg was evaluated by Maker based on highlight videos.

“You really have to be careful recruiting any player, international or not, if you haven’t seen them play live,” Marist Athletic Director Tim Murray said. “Most coaches will tell you it’s really hard to evaluate off tape.” Dunne has a similar mindset, adding, “You also have to evaluate the competition level.”

John Dunne was hired after 12 seasons at Saint Peter’s. (Marist Athletics)

Against the norm, Maker went all-in on international recruiting, but it wasn’t a method out of the ordinary at Marist. A bobblehead of Rik Smits sat in Maker’s office as a constant reminder that the best player in the history of Marist men’s basketball hailed from the Netherlands. The second overall pick in the 1988 NBA Draft shepherded the first wave of international players at Marist.

Murray was an assistant coach during Smits’ time at Marist, as was current Pistons General Manager Jeff Bower. “When Marist was recruiting international kids in the mid-80s, that was almost unheard of,” Murray said.

According to Business Insider, the NBA had a mere 1.7 percent of players born outside of the United States in the 1980-81 season. During that same decade, Marist often had a starting five that was mostly comprised of foreigners. The percentage rose to 7.6 percent in the 1997-98 season and nearly quadrupled in just under two decades, growing to 28.6 percent during the 2015-16 NBA season.

Marist was breaking barriers.

Smits teamed up with Frenchman Rudy Bourgarel, the father of Utah Jazz Center Rudy Gobert, to lead Marist to their only NCAA Tournament berths in 1986 and 1987. Bourgarel spent a decade playing professionally in France, but never made it to the NBA, a dream his son is now living.

Landing the 7-foot-4-inch Dunking Dutchman and Bourgarel sparked a history of international recruits at Marist, something that hasn’t left since it began. But four straight seasons with over 20 losses under Maker was a cause for concern. “Bottom line is it’s a win business and we didn’t win enough,” Murray said.

The Red Foxes were the doormat of the conference throughout Maker’s stint as head coach, but the hiring of Dunne, a fellow MAAC head coach, will bring a defensive mind to the Hudson Valley. And boy, does Marist need help on that end of the floor, ranking among the worst of all 351 Division I programs last season in points allowed (333rd) and turnover margin (344th). “From Murray’s view, I understand the decision because the results were not what we would have liked them to be,” Knudsen said.

The decision left players in shock, especially those from overseas that forewent a professional career in Europe on Maker’s word. “When he told me, I was pretty sad because this is the guy that recruited me, and I have great respect for him as a person,” Sjoberg said.

Tobias Sjoberg was recruited from Sweden by Mike Maker’s staff. (Marist Athletics)

Though a coaching change is not in the cards for any athlete when they sign a letter of intent, there is added pressure for international players to prove they belong in the NCAA. “You have to go into all seasons hungry and try to prove yourself,” Knudsen said. “I think Coach Dunne is more neutral and just looks at basketball.”

Keep in mind, Maker offered most of the six international players on the roster last season their only Division I scholarship. Adjusting to a new head coach, especially one that has only coached two international players since 2010, could turn a life-changing decision into a regrettable one. “One of the things I say to athletes is that nobody likes change, but you can deal with change in one of two ways,” Murray said. “You can embrace it and succeed, or you can resist it and fail.”

As for Sjoberg, he was essentially guaranteed a starting spot on the team by Maker, but a bit of unrest may build if these plans are jeopardized by new coaches. “I think every kid is uneasy about their role with a new coach,” Murray said. “Coach Dunne is going to look at things differently, so you have to basically re-prove yourself. It’s a clean slate.”

Just over a month into his position, Dunne is tasked with building a relationship with players familiar with his coaching style, but worried about their future role on the team. With any new coach, gaining trust is imperative. “I think communication is a really key component to successful coaching,” Murray said. “My paradigm is recruiting, communicating and coaching, in that order and in that priority.”

Dunne does not seem too worried about connecting with players, international or not. He isn’t placing players from overseas under a different umbrella, but rather evaluating athletes individually. “It’s like getting married,” Dunne said. “You don’t really know them until you’re living with them every day. It’s the same kind of thing, so you take it day by day.”

The journey to college for international students usually isn’t the high school standout, AAU all-star path that most athletes take. There is often a sit-back-and-wait approach, where coaches from national teams contact American schools about recruiting opportunities. European professional leagues remain a likely possibility for Division I prospects, but the college experience in the United States is a one-time opportunity.

Faced with an unexpected coaching change, international athletes are left up in the air about their place on a roster. Committing to a Division I program is rare for foreigners, but adapting to a new coach is worth the chance to play with the best collegiate players.

Marist has developed a pedigree of overseas recruits, so players like Knudsen and Sjoberg can rest assured that their talents will likely be valued under Dunne. “I think that he can do a great job with us as a team and myself as an individual,” Sjoberg said. “As long as we do our job and do our best, he’s going to notice that.”

NIL and NCAA: What to know about the new policy and how NBC Sports can help

NCAA College World Series
Getty Images
0 Comments

As of July 1, 2021, a new NCAA policy has been in effect allowing student-athletes from all three divisions to monetize their name, image, and likeness (often referred to as NIL). As long as the activities are “consistent with the law of the state where the school is located,” athletes now have the opportunity to accept endorsements from brands, monetize their social media presences, and work with professional firms to coordinate deals.

Click here for additional information and guidelines regarding NCAA NIL policies and keep reading to find answers to questions such as how NIL works as well as how NBC Sports can help.

What is NIL and NBC Sports Athlete Direct?

NBC Sports Athlete Direct is coming to a school near you. The program enables college student-athletes to earn money from their name, image, and likeness (NIL) through a unique marketplace that connects athletes with advertisers. NBC Sports Athlete Direct will work to provide equal opportunities to all student-athletes, regardless of which team you play on or any statistical performance.

How will the NIL Marketplace work?

Advertisers will use NBC Sports Athlete Direct to make NIL offers available to college student-athletes. College student-athletes will then have the option to participate in the NIL offer. Those who decide to participate and complete the advertiser’s campaign requirements will be compensated based on a predetermined rate.

How much money can athletes make participating in NBC Sports Athlete Direct?

Compensation will vary by advertiser campaign.

When will NBC Sports Athlete Direct launch and how can I sign up?

NBC Sports Athlete Direct will officially launch in the Fall of 2022 but prior to that, we will be launching a pilot program soon, exclusively for Temple and Vanderbilt student-athletes.

In the meantime, click here to fill out a student-athlete interest form and once it is available at your school, we will notify you and provide you with additional information on how to sign up.

If I participate in NIL offers from NBC Sports Athlete Direct, do I still have the freedom to do other NIL deals that are not related to NBC Sports Athlete Direct?

Yes, this program is non-exclusive so our student-athletes will have the freedom to participate in other NIL deals that are not related to NBC Sports Athlete Direct.

What are the rules or restrictions for participating in this program?

Unfortunately, international students and students under the age of 18 are not eligible to participate in the pilot program at this time.

Kentucky to allow college athletes to earn off likeness

Jamie Rhodes-USA TODAY Sports
5 Comments

FRANKFORT, Ky. — Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear signed an executive order Thursday allowing the state’s college athletes – including players on the nationally renowned Kentucky and Louisville men’s basketball teams – to make money through the use of their name, image or likeness.

The Democratic governor said he took the action as a matter of fairness for college athletes. It will spare Kentucky’s colleges from being at a competitive disadvantage with rivals in other states that will have laws enabling athletes to profit off their name, image or likeness, he said.

“This is important to our student-athletes, who for decades, others – whether it’s companies or institutions – have profited on,” Beshear told reporters. “These athletes deserve to be a part of that.”

Beshear said his executive order takes effect July 1, when similar legislation passed in several other states will become law. His office said he was the first governor to make the change by executive order.

The governor’s action won praise from the University of Kentucky and the University of Louisville. UK plays in the Southeastern Conference and UofL competes in the Atlantic Coast Conference.

“Bringing the state of Kentucky into competitive balance with other states across the country and, more specifically, the Atlantic Coast Conference is critical,” Vince Tyra, U of L’s vice president for intercollegiate athletics, said in a release issued by the governor’s office.

UK athletics director Mitch Barnhart said the governor’s action “provides us the flexibility we need at this time to further develop policies around name, image and likeness.”

“We are appreciative of that support, as it is a bridge until such time as state and/or federal laws are enacted,” Barnhart said in the same release from Beshear’s office. “The landscape of college sports is now in the midst of dramatic and historic change – perhaps the biggest set of shifts and changes since scholarships were first awarded decades ago.”

In Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Mississippi, New Mexico and Texas, laws go into effect July 1 that make it impermissible for the NCAA and members schools to prevent athletes from being paid by third parties for things like sponsorship deals, online endorsements and personal appearances.

The NCAA had hoped for a national law from Congress that has not come, and its own rule-making has been bogged down for months. College sports leaders are instead moving toward the type of patchwork regulation they have been warning against for months.