Jan. 29, 2008
Poetry in motion. That's what Patrick (Patty) Mills says he and Andrew Ogilvy created as they ran the court together at the Australian Institute of Sport last year. Mills would push the ball on a break, whistle to Ogilvy and loft an alley-oop pass toward the rim. With perfect, practiced timing, Ogilvy would appear on the wing: step, catch, dunk.
"It really was like that," says Ogilvy, now a freshman center at Vanderbilt. "I don't know how, but we were always able to find each other."
The two mates are 2,000 miles apart now on the other side of the world, but they still know where to find each other -- on TV, on the Internet, in the headlines, filling up NCAA box scores. "After a game he'll send me a message, 'Congrats on the win,' " says Mills, now a freshman point guard at St. Mary's in Moraga, Calif. "I'll send him one: 'Great job, saw you on TV -- in America, of all places.' "
Ever since Andrew Bogut, a 7-footer out of Melbourne, was named college basketball's 2005 national player of the year as a sophomore at Utah and went No. 1 in that June's NBA draft, America, of all places, has become the destination of choice for many of Australia's best young hoops talents. According to Basketball Australia, the organizing body for the sport Down Under, the number of Aussies on college rosters has risen tenfold from a decade ago, with some 200 Australian men and women playing in the U.S. this year, including 33 in the men's NCAA Division I. Among them is a crew of high-achieving upperclassmen that includes three-time All-Big 12 honoree Aaron Bruce, a 6' 3" senior point guard at Baylor whose smart, selfless play has helped spark the 15-2 Bears' revival; Nebraska senior All-America candidate Aleks Maric, a 6' 11", 275-pound center whose 16.6 points and 8.2 rebounds a game through Sunday were leading the 11-5 Huskers; 7-foot junior center Luke Nevill, who was pacing 10-6 Utah with 13.6 points and 7.3 rebounds a game; and, most prominently, 6' 10", 270-pound junior center Aron Baynes of sixth-ranked Washington State (15-1). Told last spring by Cougars coach Tony Bennett that his team would only be as good as he was, Baynes, a brawny former rugby player from Cairns -- "He's a beast," says Washington forward Jon Brockman -- dropped 20 pounds and is now a critical contributor in Pullman, averaging 12.1 points and 6.4 rebounds a game.
But no Australian, not even Bogut in his day, has had the immediate impact of Ogilvy and Mills, who have lifted two rarely celebrated teams into the limelight and conference title contention. Ogilvy, a 6' 10", 250-pound 19-year-old from Sydney, is Vanderbilt's first bona fide, game-altering center since Will Perdue graduated 20 years ago. He has great hands and quick feet, and thanks in part to the lessons he learned going up against Baynes daily at the AIS for a year, he's well-schooled in the subtleties of post positioning. "He is as fundamentally sound as any big guy his age I've ever seen," says Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings. And rare for a big guy of any age, Ogilvy can shoot free throws: He gets to the line more than seven times a game and makes good on nearly 80% of his shots. Through Sunday he was averaging 18.5 points and 6.8 rebounds a game for the 14th-ranked Commodores, who were off to a surprising 17-2 start.
"He's as dominant a big man as there is in the SEC," says Tennessee coach Bruce Pearl, whose Vols nevertheless held Ogilvy to 12 points in an 80-60 win last Thursday. "His size, his athleticism, his ability to use his body -- he's the real deal."
So is the 19-year-old Mills, a creative playmaker who announced his arrival in America with a stunning 37-point performance in the Gaels' 99-87 upset of then 12th-ranked Oregon on Nov. 20. His speed, endurance (he ran a 4:52 mile this fall) and thread-the-needle passes, not to mention his 15.1 points and 4.1 assists a game, helped St. Mary's score its first AP ranking in 18 years -- No. 24 in mid-December -- though the school has since fallen out of the Top 25.
"Mills is one of the five best point guards in the country right now. He's got an intangible feel for how to play the position. The last three point guards I recruited [while an assistant at UCLA] -- Jordan Farmar, Darren Collison and Russell Westbrook -- are in the NBA or are going to be. He's as good or better than all of them."
- Santa Clara Head Coach Kerry Keating
"Mills is one of the five best point guards in the country right now," says Santa Clara coach Kerry Keating, who watched Mills make 16 points, six assists, three boards and two steals in a 76-45 Gaels win on Jan. 12. "He's got an intangible feel for how to play the position. The last three point guards I recruited [while an assistant at UCLA] -- Jordan Farmar, Darren Collison and Russell Westbrook -- are in the NBA or are going to be. He's as good or better than all of them."
To understand how two such rare talents arrived here with no fanfare and yet have made their mark in one of the strongest freshman classes, it's worth reviewing the record of Australian-American basketball migration, which has historically been more trickle than wave. Aussies have been playing basketball at U.S. colleges for at least 50 years, but with few exceptions -- Andrew Gaze, who played on Seton Hall's 1989 Final Four team; Luc Longley, a two-time all-conference player at New Mexico from 1987 to '91; Luke Schenscher, who helped Georgia Tech reach the 2004 NCAA title game -- they played in relative obscurity until Bogut's success grabbed people's attention on both sides of the Pacific. "Then the floodgates to Australia opened," says Washington State assistant Ben Johnson, who recruited Baynes. "Everybody started going down there to find the next Bogut."
Most recruiters on that hunt head straight to the Institute of Sport, Australia's elite development center for basketball and 25 other sports, in the capital city of Canberra. There the country's best young male and female hoopsters train three times a day and play against international competition and domestic pro (women's) and semipro (men's) teams while attending a nearby public high school. (The AIS players maintain their NCAA eligibility because they are strictly amateurs.) By the time U.S. colleges come trolling, the athletes have already been living away from home for one or two years, and have gotten a strong education in nutrition and the game's fundamentals. "They are further ahead than high school kids coming into college because of how they train and who they play against," says Tony Bennett. "They won't be overwhelmed by the intensity and duration of a college season. That puts them ahead of the curve quite a bit."
As a bonus, Aussies are practically hard-wired by their egalitarian culture to be collaborative. "They are great team guys; they are not into their own stats," says St. Mary's coach Randy Bennett. "If you try to sell them on the idea that they'll be all-league this or first-team that, they don't buy it. They aren't comfortable with that."
As Aussies have become more appealing to U.S. colleges, college has become more appealing to Aussies. "A lot of our players see college as a chance to go away, mature physically and further develop their games," says AIS men's coach Marty Clarke.
Living in a country where basketball ranks below cricket and rugby in popularity and where NCAA games are rarely broadcast, most Australians don't grasp the college basketball pecking order, and that can be an advantage for nontraditional powers. "They don't know the difference between St. Mary's and UCLA, and we don't tell them," says Randy Bennett. "But they understand that getting recruited by the biggest school is not the most important thing. You have to develop a relationship. They are leaving their homes, their families. They have to be certain it's a good fit."
Ogilvy was pursued by about 15 schools, Mills by about six. "Here's what typically happens with the AIS kids," says St. Mary's assistant David Patrick, who grew up and played professionally in Australia. "American coaches go to the Internet, and they look at the AIS [roster]. Then they recruit the kids who are tall. It's not usually a place you go to get a point guard, because you can find those kids here."
Gaels coach Randy Bennett is an exception. He has long tapped the Aussie pipeline for players of all sizes. He signed Daniel Kickert, a 6' 10" center, in 2002 and Adam Caporn, a 6' 3" guard, a year earlier. Two other AIS products, guard Carlin Hughes and forward Lucas Walker, joined the team this year after transferring from Montana State-Billings, and a third, center Ben Allen, is sitting out this year after leaving Indiana. Bennett was the only head coach who visited Mills's parents, Benny and Yvonne, but when Patty boarded a flight to visit U.S. schools in the fall of 2006, Utah was his first stop. While he was in the air, however, Utah got a commitment from another guard and no longer had a scholarship available. Mills then flew to the Bay Area, decided he liked St. Mary's and ended up signing there. "I'm sure there are a hundred Division I programs that are kicking themselves for not recruiting him harder," says Washington State's Johnson.
Utah and then coach Ray Giacoletti also recruited Ogilvy but gave up on him when 6' 9" junior college center Nemanja Calasan committed to the Utes. That same day, Giacoletti happened to be on the phone with Stallings, a good friend. "Kevin asked, 'Is there anybody else out there in the big spot?' I told him to follow up on Ogilvy because we couldn't do anything with him," says Giacoletti, who's now an assistant at Gonzaga.
Ogilvy chose Vanderbilt over New Mexico, UNLV and St. Mary's, and his presence in the middle has helped get open looks on the perimeter for the Commodores' guards. The friendly, bespectacled Aussie is beloved in Nashville for his work ethic, his easy humor and his utter lack of a sense of entitlement. No matter how hard Stallings has been on him or his teammates, Ogilvy thanks his coach after every practice.
Ogilvy, who has gone by A.J. ever since he was three months old, when his older brother, Damien, and sister, Lisa, bought him an Air Jordan hat that said AJ23, played a half-dozen sports growing up and was promising enough in tennis that Damien, a tennis coach, thought he might star in that. "I tried to balance the two, but basketball ended up taking over," says Ogilvy.
After representing New South Wales in the U-18 National Basketball Championships, Ogilvy earned a scholarship to the AIS when he was 16. His dorm neighbor was the 15-year-old Mills, another prodigy. (Most players start at age 17 and stay for two years; Mills and Ogilvy both attended for three.) Mills had started playing basketball 11 years earlier at the Shadows Basketball Club, a team in Canberra for indigenous people that Benny, a Torres Strait Islander, and his mom, Yvonne, an Aborigine, helped found 20 years ago and still run. At age 4 1/2, Patty was playing with the Shadows' under-10s. "We'd let him in for a minute or two at the end of every half because he was really keen to get on the court," says Benny.
Like Ogilvy, Mills played other sports, but also like Ogilvy, his childhood dream was to play for the Boomers in the Olympics. No indigenous player has made the Australian Olympic basketball team since Benny's cousin Dan Morseu, Mills's role model, played shooting guard for the Boomers at the 1980 and '84 Games.
Mills took a step toward realizing his dream this summer when he became the youngest-ever member of the Aussie national team, scoring 17 points in a win against New Zealand that sealed a berth for Australia in Beijing. He has a good shot at making the Olympic team next summer, and beyond that, after college, he hopes to play in the NBA. There is a whole community of people back home for whom he wants to set new standards, new goals.
"The way other basketballers have looked up to Andrew Bogut, I hope indigenous people will look up to me," he says. "If he hadn't taken that path, I don't think many Australians would have come over to college. So now, knowing that he's in the NBA, other players are saying, 'Let me have a go at it; let me try it to see if I can do that.' That's exactly the message I hope to send to the indigenous community."
There should be no worries on that count. As Ogilvy and the Gaels can attest, Mills is usually right on target when giving an assist.