SPOKANE, Wash. (AP) — Assistant coach Tommy Lloyd has been to so many countries looking for the best international talent during his 19 seasons on the Gonzaga staff. So many passport books filled. So many stamps.
“I had a cool one from Zimbabwe. They had a sticker and you had to pay $20 cash when you got in the country in U.S. dollars. That’s how crazy it was,” Lloyd said. “That’s going back 20 years or something.”
Today the travel is less extensive, a little less exotic for Lloyd. But the influence of international players on Gonzaga's roster remains strong.
Going back to the days when Ronny Turiaf was one of the best players in the country, there’s always been a bit of an international flavor to the Bulldogs' roster. Countries like Martinique, Brazil, Germany, Russia and France — to name a select few — have had some of their best end up playing in little Spokane, Washington, for the school with the funny-sounding name.
But this year, with the Zags ranked No. 2 in the country heading into this week’s games against Loyola Marymount and Saint Mary’s, takes the top spot. Six players from five different countries are on the roster. The dominant conversation inside the palatial locker room could be any mix of languages all bonded together by a game that has become far more international.
Coaches like Lloyd have found themselves at the forefront of that expansion.
“This was kind of born out of necessity. We wanted to keep growing the program and we needed to recruit at a higher level,” Lloyd said. “Eastern Washington is a great place, but it's not necessarily a hotbed for basketball talent. So we had to think outside the box, so we started investing time and resources and developing relationships overseas."
Those relationships have yielded a bounty of stars. It’s started in the early 2000s with Turiaf, the gregarious forward from Martinique who has become an ambassador for the school in basketball circles. Other standouts like J.P. Batista (Brazil), Przemek Karnowski (Poland), Elias Harris (Germany), Domantas Sabonis (Lithuania) and Rui Hachimura (Japan) have also cycled through Spokane.
And that list doesn’t include the large number of Canadians like Robert Sacre, Kevin Pangos and Kelly Olynyk.
This year's group includes leading scorer Filip Petrusev of Serbia. Starters Killian Tillie and Joel Ayayi make up the French contingent. Martynas Arlauskas (Lithuania), Pavel Zakharov (Russia) and Oumar Ballo (Mali) are on the Bulldogs bench.
Petrusev is averaging 17 points per game and had a career-high 31 points last week against Santa Clara.
“I’ve changed a lot of teams, and being the foreign kid and being accepted like this and just everybody welcoming me like this, it’s never happened,” said Petrusev, who grew up in Serbia before finishing his high school career playing in Florida. “It was the quickest settle in for me. The guys made it look like I had been here a year before I came. I think the culture here — a lot of international guys so we can relate to each other — but the domestic guys understand us, too, and they do an amazing job of just bringing us into their culture.”
Petrusev was drawn to Gonzaga by its success developing post players for the NBA, like Olynyk and Sabonis in recent years.
Ayayi first became aware of Gonzaga when Tillie committed to joining the Zags. The two are a couple of years apart but attended the same academy in France.
“I just knew it was in a small city up there in the cold,” Ayayi said pointing and laughing.
Ayayi has developed at Gonzaga. He averaged just 5.6 minutes per game as a redshirt freshman last season. This year, he is playing nearly 30 minutes per night, averaging 11.2 points and is second on the team in rebounding.
“At the beginning people think it’s harder on the court. But you come here and struggle on the court, it’s almost better than off the court. Because off the court there are so many things you have to figure out,” Ayayi said. “You may really struggle in practice, but you better enjoy it because when you get out of practice it’s worse. You have the language barrier, you have so many things at school, all those little new things to get used to. ... But Tommy always makes sure everyone is feeling great.”
Lloyd has tried his best to make the transition as easy as possible. There’s support staff on campus, but even more important is having the lineage of international players so lessons can be passed from one class to the next.
“I know the international guys look after each other and try to help each other acclimate as quick as they can,” Lloyd said. “It goes to having a diverse locker room. We have so many different guys from different cultures that it's a really comfortable place and I don't think anybody ever feels like they're an outsider because in their own way everybody’s kind of an outsider. That’s kind of what makes it work.”