WASHINGTON, USA - International players have played key roles in helping 3 teams reach Saturday's semifinals of the US national college basketball tournament and could prove decisive in deciding the "Final Four" champion.
While 5-time winner North Carolina (31-7) boasts an all-American lineup, semi-final foe Oregon (33-5) and last-4 rivals South Carolina (26-10) and Gonzaga (36-1) all have 5 players from beyond US borders gathering at Glendale, Arizona.
"I've coached a lot of foreign kids. And I understand their journey. That's what my family went through," said South Carolina coach Frank Martin, the son of Cuban political exiles and first American-born member of his family.
"I respect the journey that they're on. I respect the fact they come here to figure out a way to make a better life so they can do better to help their families. And they go through difficult moments."
Martin said his international team would have no problem with a traditional champion visit to the White House despite US President Donald Trump's recent immigration crackdown.
"We live in the United States of America. I'm not visiting an individual's home," Martin said. "We're visiting the top building that represents the great country that has given every single one of us an opportunity. That's the way I'd look at it."
Gonzaga, a small-school perennial contender making a Final Four debut, features Polish 7-foot-1 center Przemek Karnowski, who averages 12.2 points, 5.8 rebounds, 1.9 assists and 1.0 blocked shots a game.
'Huge upside' for Hachimura
Gonzaga reserve forward Rui Hachimura, a 19-year-old freshman, is thought to be the first Japanese native in the tournament.
"I want to show the Japanese people they can play in America," Hachimura told Fox Sports. "It's good for us."
Hachimura, whose father is from the African nation of Benin and whose mother is from Japan, averages 2.6 points and 1.4 rebounds and has impressed Bulldogs coach Mark Few.
"Rui's got a huge upside. He's got probably as high an upside as anybody in our program," Few said. "He has really been battling the language barrier. And now he's getting a little more comfortable with that.
"And then he's had to adapt just to the intensity and kind of the toughness of the game. But he's going to be a very, very good player. He's going to take a big jump."
Polish 7-foot-1 starting center Przemek Karnowski averages 12.2 points, 5.8 rebounds, 1.9 assists and 1.0 blocked shots a game
Other Gonzaga reserves includes French freshman forward Killian Tillie, Canadian junior guard Dustin Triano and Danish freshman center Jacob Larsen, who suffered a season-ending knee injury in October.
South Carolina is powered by US playmaker Sindarius Thornwell's 21.6 points and 7.2 rebounds a game.
But two starters in every Gamecocks contest are Canadian senior guard Duane Notice - who has 10.2 points, 2.6 rebounds, 2.3 assists and 1.0 steals a game - and Gabonese sophomore forward Chris Silva, who averages 10.1 points, 5.9 rebounds and 1.3 blocks.
"I couldn't be prouder of Chris," Martin said. "I've been harder on him than anyone on our team, because we need him to be real good for our team to be as good as it can be.But he doesn't run away from it. He loves it. He's phenomenal."
South Carolina also has Estonian freshman forward Maik Kotsar, who averages 5.9 points and 4.8 rebounds, plus reserve forwards Khadim Gueye of Senegal and Ran Tut of Australia.
Englishman will be key Duck
Oregon has a trio of Canadian standouts in forward Dillon Brooks, with a team-high average of 16.3 points plus 3.1 rebounds and 2.8 assists a game; forward Chris Boucher, averaging 11.8 points and 6.1 rebounds, and starting guard Dylan Ennis, who averages 10.7 points, 4.4 rebounds and 3.1 assists and Israeli forward Roman Sorkin coming off the bench.
But the Ducks' key against North Carolina could be 21-year-old England forward Kavell Bigby-Williams, who averages 3.1 points and 2.8 rebounds but who also has taken on a bigger role since center Chris Boucher was lost to torn knee ligaments three weeks ago.
"Kavell is going to have to have a big game for us," Oregon coach Dana Altman said. "We are facing a team that's really good inside. Kavell will be a big part of our equation. He's gong to have to rebound the ball and give us some good minutes."
Adapting after a jump from the junior college ranks, Bigby-Williams told the Eugene Register-Guard he is ready for his greatest challenge yet.
"The main issue was confidence," he said. "But at this point in the season I feel that's back where it needs to be. I adjusted slowly but surely and now I'm on the biggest stage to show what I can do." – Rappler.com