06 March 2012

NCAA African Madness

March Madness is not just a US collegiate basketball matter. It is an international celebration of the game, especially with the rising number of players born outside the United States who take part.
Africa is no exception. More and more African-born prospect student-athletes have chosen to pursue their sport and educational careers on the other side of the Atlantic.
 When, in a few days time, 68 collegiate teams from different conferences start competing for a place in the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) Division 1 Final Four, a large number of Africans will be involved in the process.
 There are currently over 400 international student-athletes competing in Division I Men’s Basketball and 80 of them are from Africa, according to the NCAA.
 However, this figure does not include athletes who hold dual-citizenship. For example, University of Texas point guard Myck Kabongo was born in DR Congo, but he represents Canada.
 Africans make up the third largest group of international players competing in Division 1 behind Europeans (157 student-athletes) and North America (114 non-US).
They are followed by Australians (34), South Americans (20) and Asians (7).
 Five years ago (2006-07), there were 424 international student-athletes competing in the NCAA Division I Men’s Basketball, and 88 of those players were from Africa.
 Africans became madly attracted to the NCAA since international programmes such as Basketball without Borders (BWB) started campaigning and promoting education and sports outside the United States.
 Cameroonian international and Milwaukee Bucks forward Luc Mbah a Moute is an example, as he joined the BWB in Johannesburg at the age of 16, before accepting an offer from the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA) programme.
 The recruitment process by US colleges outside the country has benefited not only the schools, but the players’ countries of origin.
 These youths compete against the best prospect players in the world and benefit from learning with experienced head coaches, the best they can get.
What makes me really enthusiastic about the rising number of Africa-born players in the NCAA is the fact they are not just quantity. Instead, there is also quality among them.
 Despite showing some limitations in his offensive game, Louisville University's Senegalese centre Gorgui Dieng is currently one of the top 10 blockers in the NCAA, with 3.2 swats per game.
 Inspired by NBA African players such as Mbah a Moute, Bismack Biyombo, Serge Ibaka, DeSagana Diop and Christian Eyenga, the new generation of young African players find in the American universities the rare high-education and sports career that their native countries cannot offer.
 Nigerian Ugo Okam, for instance, is pursuing his education at highly-rated Harvard University.
 There are players from all corners of Africa, including from countries with low tradition in basketball - Ghana, Uganda and Chad are all represented in Division 1.
 With 25 players, Nigeria is the most representative country, followed by Cameroon with 15. Senegal and Ivory Coast combine for 19 players.
 South Africa, Chad and Sudan have three players each, followed by Egypt, Mali, Benin with two apiece, while Guinea-Conakry, Tunisia, Angola, Burkina Faso, Ghana and Uganda have one single representative.
 I am not the only one advocating sport and education to youth players.
 Ivory Coast international and Gonzaga University forward Guy Landry Edi agrees: “I believe they play in the NCAA because there is not better system in the whole world where you can play basketball at high level and follow your education at the same time. Especially Africa needs more educated people for the continent to advance. If basketball does not work or you get injured you have your education to be successful in life.”
New Mexico State University South African center Tshilidzi Nephawe is one of the 80 African student-athletes.
This is what his coach Marvin Menzies said when I asked him about the rising number of African players in the NCAA: “I think (it's) because they are talented. They bring great size and athleticism and discipline. I think all of the players that I’ve had the opportunity to recruit from Africa have also been very coachable. I think culturally they tend to be a self-disciplined and self-motivated type of player.”
 Davidson University head coach Bob McKillop, who counts with Tunisian Youssef Mejri in his squad said: “Basketball has become a global game. The NCAA is filled with players from International backgrounds. This is also happening in the NBA as players from all continents can be found on rosters.”
If federations take considerably attention, some of these young players may be extremely useful at next year AfroBasket, to be staged in Ivory Coast.

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