Thursday, May 24, 2018
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Rockets courting international talent

UT, other mid-majors expanding boundaries to sign best recruits


Flanked by UT teammates Ana Capotosto, left, and Mariah Carson, Inma Zanoguera shows a heart to her Spanish Club fans during a March game at Savage Arena. The Spaniard will enter her junior season among the top players in the league.

Blade/Lori King Enlarge

Picture a Spanish point guard burrowing into the lane and stopping to consider her options.

Another Spaniard, this one a wing, is squirting by a defender along the baseline. Meanwhile, a post player from England is jousting for position on the low block.

Now picture this international triumvirate wearing University of Toledo midnight blue and gold. This snapshot will be set into focus for the foreseeable future.

No matter the number of conference titles they attain or attendance figures they smash, the Rockets will always lack the domestic recruiting punch of a bigger program. An avenue now exists, says coaches and recruiting analysts, to level the playing field: Get quality players overseas, ones with skills comparable to acclaimed American prospects with little interest in mid-major programs like Toledo.

“It’s a trend that’s going to continue because recruiting has changed in America,” said Mike Flynn, a recruiting evaluator for Blue Star Basketball.

Two foreign prospects will arrive next school year: London forward Janice Monakana, whom Flynn called “the type of athlete that any Big Ten school would sign,” and Elena Alfredo, a point guard with the Spanish national team. Both players will have four years of eligibility. They join a program that loses four-time All-Mid-American Conference selection Naama Shafir of Israel and returns Spaniard Inma Zanoguera, who will enter her junior year among the top players in the league.

Two other MAC schools, Kent State and Ball State, played last season with international talent. Ball State’s Nathalie Fontaine, a smooth scorer from Sweden, collected MAC freshman of the year and fueled an eight-win turnaround for the Cardinals.

“If Nathalie Fontaine was a kid from Indianapolis she’s probably getting recruiting by Purdue and all the Big Ten schools and we probably wouldn’t be in the hunt,” Ball State coach Brady Sallee said. “You could say that about Naama and you could say that about Inma. It’s a chance for us to put a kid on our roster that looks exactly the same as a kid on Ohio State’s roster.”

Other mid-majors agree. Texas-El Paso, which averaged 25 wins the past two years, was led in scoring last season by a Latvian import. A top bench player on Drexel, which won the Women’s National Invitation Tournament, hails from England. A German made the West Coast Conference team for Gonzaga.

With two scholarships for next year unfilled, it is possible Toledo coach Tricia Cullop could acquire more foreign assets. She and associate head coach Vicki Hall, whose cell phone brims with international contacts from her 16-year playing career overseas, have tentative plans to travel to Europe next month. Cullop will say only she is “open to signing more players.” The class for now stands at five — three Americans, two Europeans.

“Our mission is to recruit the best possible players for our program and to not give ourselves any boundaries,” Cullop said.

There are several reasons why international recruiting is sensical for mid-majors:

● Foreign players are less enamored with a program’s conference affiliation than an American player. In other words, a kid growing up in Poland isn’t programmed to think the MAC is inferior to the Big Ten.

● Coaches of high-major programs offer minimal resistance. Flynn explains: “They’re going to say they don’t need to get a player from overseas because they’re already getting top players here. Maybe 10 years ago the top players overseas weren’t good enough. Now they are. Now they’re getting better and now they can compete.”

Sallee added: “A kid like Naama or a kid like Nathalie, they’re going to have three or four teams recruiting them. If they were from here they’re going to have 20 or 30.”

● Professional opportunities are vanishing in Europe, the result of a struggling economy. “It’s hard to get on a pro team because pro teams are more concerned with paying for American players or older players,” Zanoguera said. “That makes more players in Europe consider the option of going to the United States.”

● Foreigners can plug unexpected roster holes. Toledo lost four underclassmen since October, and finding quality American replacements is difficult this late into the recruiting cycle. International prospects, for whatever reason, often don’t commit until the spring or summer. Shafir, Zanoguera, Monakana, and Alfredo fit that description. “Americans tend to pull the trigger a little earlier,” Cullop said. “Some of that is just access. Sometimes late in the process it is easier to find international players with the caliber needed to help your program.”

Cullop has long mined international soil, dating to the mid 1990s when she coached two New Zealand players as an assistant at Radford. Her batting average in five years at Toledo is impressive. Shafir leaves as the program’s fifth-leading scorer, and arguably its most popular player. Zanoguera, after helping Spain capture the European U-20 title last summer, blossomed as a sophomore into an excellent all-around performer. Even a prospect Cullop missed on turned out to be good. Hailing from the Canary Islands, Leonor Rodriguez, who chose Florida State over Toledo, averaged a team-high 14.9 points last season to lead the Seminoles to the NCAA tournament.

“We’ve been in several different countries,” Cullop said.

Bringing Hall on board has only extended Toledo’s foreign network. A professional player for 16 seasons, Hall spent time in six European countries and speaks Italian fluently. Her French and Greek is decent. In December, Hall missed a Toledo home game to travel to London to see Monakana, a 6-foot forward who will contend for a starting spot.

“I can usually find someone who has heard of someone,” Hall said. “If no one has heard of that player that’s not a good sign. I can cross reference things.”

Zanoguera’s progression helped lure the latest European import. Alfredo, a prolific shooter who plugs a hole at point guard, saw the strides made by her former teammate on Spain’s national team and chose to visit Toledo, paying her own way.

“She has improved her game and physical condition so much there,” Alfredo said.

Another selling point: A swipe card. Alfredo was excited to learn she can enter Toledo’s practice facility at all hours, a luxury unavailable in her native land. She soon will walk into the gym with two International teammates, making for an interesting period of Toledo basketball.

“We really want that next level of player to maintain a high level where we can beat some high-major schools and be one of the best mid-majors,” Hall said.

Contact Ryan Autullo at: 419-724-6160 or onTwitter @AutulloBlade.

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