ATLANTA, March 15 -- Georgia Tech Coach Paul Hewitt knows he can count on Luke Schenscher, his 7-foot-1 center, to play well during the NCAA tournament. Last year, when the Yellow Jackets unexpectedly advanced to the national championship game, Schenscher scored 15 points against Kansas in the regional final and had 19 points and 12 rebounds against Oklahoma State in the Final Four.
"Luke always plays his best in the biggest games," said Hewitt, whose No. 5 seed Yellow Jackets will play No. 12 seed George Washington in an NCAA tournament first-round game Friday in Nashville. "You're talking about a kid who left home when he was 14 or 15 years old. What's to get nervous about? He's 3,000 miles from home. What's to get shook up about?"
GW's J.R. Pinnock, left, celebrates with Pops Mensah-Bonsu, who is an English import.
(John McDonnell - The Washington Post)
Schenscher is one of an unprecedented number of foreign-born players in the tournament. Seventy-one players from 32 foreign countries and Puerto Rico are playing on the tournament's 65 teams, including 10 from Australia, 10 from Canada, five from Brazil and four from Germany. Against George Washington, Schenscher will be matched up against Pops Mensah-Bonsu, from London, and his backup, junior Alex Kireev, from Ukraine.
"I think guys want to have the whole college experience and want to play a different kind of basketball and learn how to play in a tougher league," Schenscher said.
Schenscher will get to see another of his countrymen playing in Nashville. No. 13 seed Louisiana-Lafayette has a small chance of upsetting No. 4 seed Louisville on Friday in part because the Ragin' Cajuns have Chris Cameron, a 6-11, 270-pound senior center from Melbourne, who is averaging 8.1 points and 3.4 rebounds.
The NCAA first-round game between No. 7 seed Charlotte and No. 10 seed North Carolina State in Worcester, Mass., will feature three pretty good foreign players -- Wolfpack forward Ilian Evtimov of Bulgaria and guard Engin Atsur of Turkey, and 49ers center Martin Iti, another 7-footer from Melbourne, Australia. Arizona, the No. 3 seed in the Chicago Region, has players from Australia, Mali, Serbia and Montenegro and Puerto Rico.
"That ought to tell you something," said Randy Bennett, coach at Saint Mary's in Moraga, Calif. "The international competition has evened up a little bit. The guys in Europe are catching up with us."
For mid-major programs such as George Washington, Old Dominion, Pacific and Saint Mary's, landing a skilled player from a foreign country can be the difference between playing in the NCAA tournament and staying home.
Pacific Coach Bob Thomason calls it "dumb luck," but one of the main reasons the Tigers are one of the most dangerous mid-major teams in the tournament is because junior forward Christian Maraker got on a bus in Sweden more than five years ago. Maraker was attending high school a couple of hours from his parents' home and decided to visit them one weekend during the summer of 2000, at the same time Pacific was playing a tour of games in the country.
Maraker learned that an American basketball team was playing at a local gym and talked his way into a spot on the Swedish team that was playing the Tigers. Maraker made all seven of his shots in the game, and Thomason started recruiting him. Maraker visited the college in Stockton, Calif., and, when the Tigers had another open scholarship during Maraker's freshman season, he brought along his best friend, Jasko Korajkic, whose family had fled Bosnia for Sweden.
The Tigers have two other foreign-born players: center Guillaume Yango, a senior from Paris, and guard Marko Mihailovic, who was born in Belgrade but attended high school in Santa Monica, Calif. Together, the international players have led the No. 8-seeded Tigers to a 26-3 record. Pacific, which will play No. 9 seed Pittsburgh on Thursday in Boise, Idaho, won 22 games in a row before it was upset by Utah State in the final of the Big West Conference tournament last weekend.
"It has been great for our team," Thomason said. "This mixture of players has really worked out well. The American kids don't understand me when I'm coaching anyway, so I guess it doesn't matter if the other kids do, either."
Bennett, whose No. 10-seeded Gaels will play No. 7 seed Southern Illinois on Friday in Oklahoma City, has four players from different countries. Saint Mary's forward Daniel Kickert might be the second-best player in college basketball from Australia. The 6-10 junior is averaging 16.6 points, 6.6 rebounds and has made 64 three-pointers. Utah center Andrew Bogut, a star player on Australia's Olympic team last summer, is expected to be named national player of the year after averaging 20.7 points and 12.3 rebounds.
Bennett signed Kickert to a scholarship before seeing him play in person. Finally, during the spring before his freshman season at Saint Mary's, Bennett flew to Australia to watch him play. Bennett was pleasantly surprised. The Gaels had not uncovered an NBA player, but they had found someone to build their program around.
"He wouldn't have been in the NBA, but he'd have been at Kansas or Duke if he was from the U.S.," Bennett said.
Old Dominion also found a good player when former Chicago Bulls center Luc Longley recommended forward-center Alex Loughton of Perth, Australia. Loughton, who is 6-9, averaged 13.9 points and 8.1 rebounds.
Old Dominion also has players from Ivory Coast, Canada and Lithuania. The 12th-seeded Monarchs will open the tournament against fifth-seeded Michigan State on Friday in Worcester, Mass.
"A lot of those kids are attending high schools in the U.S. now, so it's easier to find them," Old Dominion Coach Blaine Taylor said.
But, if coaches are willing to travel, they can stumble on a great player, as Pacific did when it found Maraker.
"There aren't a lot of players over there," Thomason said. "You've got to get lucky."