March Madness Sprinkled With International Flavor - NBC Chicago
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March Madness Sprinkled With International Flavor

More than half the 68 teams in the NCAA Tournament had at least one player from another country on their rosters at the start of the season

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    New Mexico State and Baylor will take March Madness all over the world.

    Their NCAA Tournament game on Friday will feature 10 players who were born outside of the United States. New Mexico State has seven of them, and its coach, Paul Weir, is from Toronto. France, Ivory Coast, Kenya, India, Australia, Belgium, South Sudan, Ethiopia and Canada all will be represented by birth or heritage when the two teams take the court.

    "It's great," said New Mexico State's Johnathon Wilkins, who was born in France and grew up in Belgium. "I like the diversity on the team. It's really interesting when you have a lot of people from a lot of different countries coming together and playing together. It's really unique."

    The NBA had a record 113 international players on opening-day rosters this season, and Weir said the college game is following. More than half the 68 teams in the NCAA Tournament had at least one player from another country on their rosters at the start of the season. Saint Mary's alone has seven Australians on its roster.

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    "I think basketball as a whole is becoming so much more diverse," Weir said. "And if you look at the diversity of the NBA, I think college athletics is really quickly coming behind. The growth of not just the Canadian players but all these different countries, has really made basketball a global game. Inevitably, that's where basketball is headed."

    UC Davis forward Chima Moneke, from Canberra, Australia, has lived on five continents. He said Australia eventually will be more competitive with the United States because so many of its players are coming to America and playing college ball. It's a bonus to advance to the tournament, one of America's premier sporting events each year and one that captures the attention of millions.

    "The talent in other countries is getting much, much better," Moneke said. "Australia will eventually beat America in an international game. I just feel like a lot of people are getting a lot of confidence in coming over here because people are setting that trend."

    Many players said the games aren't on television in their countries, but online access will help their families and friends keep up with March Madness.

    A challenge for some foreign followers is the time difference. New Mexico State's Tanveer Bhullar is from Toronto, but much of his family lives in India, 10 ½ hours away from Tulsa. Friday's 11:40 a.m. Central start will be at 10:10 p.m. there.

    His brother — Sim Bhullar, all 7-foot-5 and 360 pounds of him — helped New Mexico State reach the tournament in 2013 and 2014. Little brother Tanveer (7-2, 275 pounds) said the people in India are just learning about the NCAA Tournament.

    Ronaldo Schemidt/AFP/Getty Images

    "It's kind of difficult for them to realize how big this is," he said. "There's no such thing like March Madness in India. They've never been around anything like this. Every time I talk to my mother and my aunts back there, they can only imagine what I'm talking about."

    Baylor guard Manu Lecomte, who was born in Brussels, Belgium, said the people back home are starting to understand.

    "It's a big deal," Lecomte said. "I know it's a huge thing here, but over in Belgium, I know people are watching. They're pretty excited."

    Lual-Acuil, who was born in South Sudan but grew up in Australia, said players back home watch the NCAA Tournament to get a feel for what they are striving for.

    "It's just a chance to see what most of the Australian basketball players dream of doing," he said. "Most of them want to come here and play and get to the next level if they can. It's kind of like a gateway for everybody else to see what kind of competition is here and the high level of basketball people play here."