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Could St. Mary's Aussie connection run dry?

ST. MARY'S
Updated 1:30 pm, Sunday, November 18, 2012

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  • Matthew Dellavedova is the high scorer for this season's team. Photo: Stephen Lance Dennee, Associated Press
    Matthew Dellavedova is the high scorer for this season's team. Photo: Stephen Lance Dennee, Associated Press

 

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New Year's Eve 2011, late afternoon, in a near-empty Firestone Fieldhouse in Malibu: St. Mary's forward Mitchell Young whips an outlet pass to point guard Matthew Dellavedova. Trailed by guard Jorden Page, Dellavedova crashes the lane and fires a pass to an open Page in the left corner. The sophomore guard plants his feet and effortlessly buries a three-pointer.

The trio, all alums of the elite Australian Institute of Sport, executed a perfect transition basket to stretch a comfortable lead over Pepperdine. One supporter waved an Australian flag upside down while the Gaels' contingent chanted "Aussie! Aussie! Aussie! Oi! Oi! Oi!" Even on the road, St. Mary's fans celebrate their beloved Australian players.

So what exactly would St. Mary's basketball be without the Aussies? Head coach Randy Bennett soon might know.

Even with Dellavedova leading the race for West Coast Conference Player of the Year and a television deal that carries St. Mary's games throughout the Commonwealth, the flow of Aussie players might run dry.

And one of the men who helped open the spigot, current AIS head coach Ian Stacker, could be the one to cut off the supply.

The connection

Ask Bennett how the first Australian came to St. Mary's, and he'll chalk it up to a stroke of good luck.

Bennett inherited a team that won two games in 2000-2001 and had a roster spot to fill. He liked what he saw in Adam Caporn, a lanky AIS guard he knew only as a fleeting image on his TV screen.

"It was a fluke deal in August. There was this guy in Australia that wanted to play. We needed a guard," Bennett said. "I told him school was starting and asked if he was coming or not."

Ten years after that impulsive offer, Bennett employs Caporn as an assistant coach.

Bennett also was able to reel in Caporn's friend, fellow AIS alum Daniel Kickert. The Melbourne power forward would become the school's all-time leading scorer and now plays in Poland. Bennett had landed two quality players, but his inroads into Australia remained unclear.

It would be another Melbourne figure, David Patrick, who would cement the Gaels' place in the Australian basketball community. Now a personnel scout for the Houston Rockets, Patrick helped deliver Patty Mills, the two-time All-WCC selection and future Portland Trail Blazers guard who would change the face of Bennett's program.

"Once we got Mills, the floodgates opened," Bennett said.

Patrick traveled his own unique path to American basketball. He arrived in the United States in 1994 before his senior year of high school after touring with the Australian junior national team, which then was coached by Stacker.

Patrick was determined to play American college basketball, and enrolled at Chapel Trafton High School in Baton Rouge, La., where J.P. Piper was head coach. In his lone high school season in the United States, Patrick was named the Louisiana Player of the Year and led Piper's Tigers to the Class A state quarterfinals.

From Patrick to Patty

A decade later, Piper hired Patrick to help import Australian talent to Nicholls State.

"I think (the pipeline) is huge," Piper said. Australian players "are so grateful for the opportunity because they don't get access to gyms like kids in the U.S. do. When they get in the gym, they are usually being coached in a formal setting. They don't come with all the bad habits."

With a notebook and a well-rehearsed recruiting pitch, Patrick took a seat at the 2005 Australian National Championships in Perth.

Watching the top young Australian players compete for a title, Patrick struck up a conversation with St. Mary's assistant coach Dan Shell. Shell said the Gaels were pursuing Mills, the most sought-after player in the tournament. Patrick had befriended Mills years earlier when Mills was a ballboy for Patrick's Canberra Cannons of the National Basketball League.

Patrick is a Bermuda native who moved to Melbourne at a young age, and he related to Mills, an Aboriginal, as another dark-skinned individual in a predominantly white country.

"I remember when I moved that there were black American players who helped influence my career," Patrick said. "I wanted to do the same with Patty. It was more than being a basketball player. I wanted to be somebody that he could relate to."

Shell saw an opening.

He saw the coach who not only could land Mills for the Gaels, but also could make St. Mary's the leading destination for top Australian players.

Patrick was introduced to Bennett at the 2006 Final Four and soon was hired as the director of basketball operations at St. Mary's. Shortly after, AIS alums Carlin Hughes and Lucas Walker transferred to Moraga from Montana State-Billings. Mills would sign in November 2006.

In his fourth collegiate game, Mills scored 37 points to spark an upset of No. 12 Oregon at McKeon Pavilion. He would lead the Gaels to the NCAA Tournament in 2008 before declaring for the NBA draft after his sophomore year in '09.

Mills' success helped deliver Dellavedova, Page and senior Clint Steindl (Mills' best friend at AIS), and established St. Mary's as the top destination for Australian players.

'Keep the best guys'

Now Stacker, the coach who brought Patrick on tour with the Australian junior national team almost 20 years ago, could cut off Bennett's supply.

Though former AIS coach Marty Clarke was happy to direct his players to American colleges, Stacker, who took over the AIS program in 2010, sees the flight of his players as detrimental to Australian basketball.

"For every kid that succeeds at St. Mary's, there are a lot that go by the wayside at other schools," Patrick said. "I think the new regime wants to keep the best guys in Australia so they can develop them to play in the NBL. The NBL is getting watered down because most of the young talent is here in the United States."

And the result?

The AIS is looking at taking 18- and 19-year-old players, instead of 16- and 17-year-olds.

The shift would deter American recruiters, and Bennett sees it as an ominous sign. Patrick insisted that "nothing is written in concrete" and said St. Mary's still will attract AIS players because of its reputation.

Patrick admitted, however, that the new focus will stop most American schools and European professional teams from poaching Australia's top talent.

"There hasn't been enough time for me to figure out how it will affect us," Bennett said, "but I honestly don't understand why they want to do it. I just don't know what 19- and 20-year-olds will go (to the AIS). I think if you are 19 and good, you will play professionally."

The Gaels still have Australians anchoring one of their most dangerous teams to date, a winning head coach and an Australian assistant in Caporn who thinks his countrymen will continue to thrive in Moraga.

"St. Mary's is a very appealing option," Caporn said. "Coach Bennett got it started, and now players want to come."

The Aussie pipeline

St. Mary's has had 10 Australian players in Moraga since 2001, including all-time leading scorer Daniel Kickert and former Blazers guard Patty Mills:

Playeryearsppgrpgapgcurrently
Adam Caporn2001-036.42.32.2St. Mary's assistant coach
Daniel Kickert2002-0615.25.50.9PGE Turow (Poland)
Carlin Hughes*2007-097.12.91.6Rochingham Flames (NBL Australia)
Lucas Walker*2007-093.02.00.3Melbourne Tigers (NBL Australia)
Patty Mills2007-0916.43.72.2released by Xinjiang Guanghi Flying Tigers (China)
Clint Steindl2008-present6.92.30.8senior
Matthew Dellavedova2009-present13.53.55.3junior
Mitchell Young2009-present6.43.70.5junior
Jorden Page2009-present5.81.21.5redshirt sophomore
Matthew Hodgson*2011-present5.44.20.2junior, redshirting 2011-12

*Transferred to St. Mary's after sophomore seasons. Statistics include previous schools.

Gabriel Baumgaertner is a freelance writer. letters@sportinggreen.com