NCAA Tournament: International Talent Shapes College of Charleston

NCAA Tournament: International Talent Shapes College of Charleston

With four players from outside the United States, College of Charleston offers inspiration to the next generation of international hoopers.

Mar 15, 2023 by Kyle Kensing
NCAA Tournament: International Talent Shapes College of Charleston

Croatian and Senegalese flags flew among the College of Charleston supporters on hand for the Cougars' run through the 2023 Colonial Athletic Association Championship. One fan held a sign urging CofC to get a win, "s'arvo" — Australian slang for this afternoon. 

The international flair evident among the Charleston crowd at the Entertainment and Sports Arena represented the fan base's embrace of a globally built Cougars roster featuring Croatia's Ante Brzovic, Babacar Faye of Senegal and Australians Reyne Smith and Evan Kilminster. 

And Charleston advancing to the 2023 NCAA Tournament offers inspiration to the next generation of ballers from outside the United States dreaming of one day participating in the Big Dance. 

"March Madness is the reason why I wanted to come over here and play college basketball since I was like, 14 years old," said Cougars guard Reyne Smith. 

Smith isn't just a participant in March Madness, either: He's a key reason Charleston is in the field. His 13-0 scoring outburst in a CAA Championship semifinal win over Towson was crucial to CofC advancing. 

Smith continues the long and illustrious history of Australian players to have their One Shining Moment, 34 years ago after Andrew Gaze's star turn for national runner-up Seton Hall. The Pirates' overtime thriller at the Seattle Kingdome against Glen Rice and Michigan may have been 18 time zones away from Gaze's hometown of Melbourne, but the impact was immediate on future generations of Aussie hoopers. 

Yet somehow, 16 years later, National Player of the Year and another Melbourne native, Andrew Bogut for the University of Utah, managed to convince some in the States that he kept a crocodile as a pet

The days of Americans assuming Australia is like an '80s action movie starring Paul Hogan are gone, and college basketball stars like Patty Mills (and host more at Saint Mary's), Ben Simmons and more did their small part to dispel such myths. 

Meanwhile, those hardwood exploits made it back to Australia to inspire more generations of players like Smith, a sharpshooter in Charleston's 3-point-heavy offense with 91 makes from beyond the arc and a scoring average just shy of 11 points per game. 

"That was one of the reasons I wanted to go with [Charleston] coach [Pat] Kelsey," Smith said of following the NCAA Tournament from Ulverstone on the island of Tasmania. "I trust how he wins games and everything like that. March Madness is the reason why I've come to college, and having the opportunity to do that is really special." 

The NCAA Tournament's reach isn't limited to the primarily English-speaking world, either. 

Croatia boasts a rich basketball history. The same year that Gaze made a splash from Australia with Seton Hall, a promising young star from Sibenik debuted in the NBA with the Portland Trail Blazers. The late Drazen Petrovic didn't take long to leave an impression on the United States, flourishing off the bench for the NBA Finals-qualifying Blazers before becoming a star with the New Jersey Nets. 

The 6-foot-10 Brzvovic isn't afraid to shoot the 3-pointer — he's knocked down 30 for the Cougars this season — a testament to the evolution of the shot that Petrovic was one of the earliest to embrace in the NBA. The Zagreb native will also operate off the dribble like Split's Toni Kukoc or bang in the paint like current Los Angeles Clipper Ivica Zubac. 

Indeed, Croatia has influenced the game stateside for more than 30 years. Brzovic has an opportunity to extend that imprint onto March Madness. 

"It's a dream come true for me, honestly," Brzovic said of the opportunity to play in the NCAA Tournament. "A year ago at this time, I couldn't imagine myself being here so it's just a blessing. I thank God every day for it. I have amazing people around me; great team, great coaches who believe in me." 

Brzovic earned All-Tournament honors at the CAA Championship after games of 15, 19 and 16 points with seven, nine and eight rebounds. He's been central to the Cougars' historic, 31-win season from the moment he arrived via transfer from Div. II Southeastern Oklahoma State. 

The Charleston frontcourt rotation with Brzovic features Faye in a prominent role. An alum of the NBA Academy Africa, Faye is an active rebounder and a stifling defensive presence in the paint. 

Among Faye's standout moments for Charleston is a 12-point, eight-rebound, three-block performance in the Cougars' win over fellow NCAA Tournament team Kent State. 


Unlock this video, live events, and more with a subscription!

Sign Up

Already a subscriber? Log In

Faye is the first Senegalese player in the NCA Tournament since 7-foot-6 Tacko Fall was the center of attention for Round of 32 qualifier UCF. 

Contributing to Charleston's run fulfills their dreams of playing on one of basketball's biggest stages, but the American-born Cougars have had plenty to gain from the global make-up of the roster. 

"Off the court, it makes for so much fun and entertainment in the locker room," said guard Ryan Larson from St. Paul, Minnesota. "Everyone comes from different background, so everyone has different stories. But we find a way to all have the same goal. 

"On the court, those international guys all have such a high-level IQ for the game," Larson added. "It makes it easier as a point guard [because] they know where to be without me even telling them."

For as long as this March Madness stay lasts, Cougar fans will have reason to continue waving the flags of Croatia, Senegal and Australia — and all do so under the same banner.