Deng Adel is hoping to live up to the high hopes of his legendary University of Louisville coach, Rick Pitino.
Another Australian, Isaac Humphries at the University of Kentucky, is playing to keep a late friend’s dream alive.
St Mary’s, a talented squad from California with seven of their 15 players Australian, are aiming to pull off David-style upsets against the Goaliths of US college basketball.
The NCAA Tournament, bringing together the top 68 college teams across the US in a three-week lose and you’re out format until a winner is crowned on April 3, features a large contingent of Australians spread across storied programs and smaller schools like St Mary’s seeking glory.
They all have intriguing stories.
Pitino, seeking his third NCAA title, revealed how he sat down a week ago with Melbourne’s Adel for a frank conversation.
“He was disappointed in the type of season he was having and I told him what I felt,” Pitino told reporters
Adel, who as a child fled war-torn Sudan with his family, briefly settled in Uganda before arriving in Australia in 2004 and settling in Fitzroy and Sunshine, was focused on scoring and his game and the Cardinals’ were suffering.
Pitino thought the 201cm-tall 21-year-old should be leading his squad in steals and be the second best rebounder, but he was not.
“You’re just focused on becoming a scorer, and if that’s the case you’ll never reach your potential,” Pitino told Adel.
The fate of the Cardinals in the NCAA tournament will likely rest with Adel and fellow Aussie big man Mangok Mathiang, who also fled Sudan as a child and settled in Melbourne.
At another traditional power school and favourite to win the title, the University of Kentucky, 213cm Sydney forward/centre Humphries is playing with his late childhood friend Arran Bannatyne in mind.
Bannatyne, also a talented young Australian player, died earlier this year and had always dreamed of playing for the Wildcats.
Humphries wrote “RIP ARRAN” on his shoes before a recent game.
“It was just a little way for me to somehow let him fulfil his dream even though he’s not here,” Humphries told Kentucky’s Courier-Journal newspaper.
St Mary’s, located near San Francisco, has seven Australians on their 15-man roster and the associate head coach is Marty Clarke, a former NBL player and coach.
St Mary’s play their first game in Salt Lake City on Friday AEDT against Virginia Commonwealth University, a team they have not played before.
“They are athletic, strong and their starters are seniors,” Clarke, who along with St Mary’s other coaches have been poring over video of VCU’s recent games to compile a game plan, told AAP.
“They try and press and play a full court game.”
AUSTRALIANS IN THE NCAA TOURNAMENT (Seeding in brackets)
Canberra’s Chima Moneke’s UC Davis (16) v North Carolina Central (16)
Wollongong’s Xavier Cooks’ Winthrop (13) v Butler (4)
St Mary’s (7) v VCU (10)
Perth’s Keanu Pinder’s Arizona (2) v North Dakota (15)
Sydney’s Isaac Humphries’ Kentucky (2) v Northern Kentucky (15)
Gippsland’s Jack White’s Duke (2) v Troy (15)
Melbourne’s Jo Lual-Acuil Jr’s Baylor (3) v New Mexico State (14)
Melbourne’s Mangok Mathiang/Deng Adel’s Louisville (2) v Sydney’s Keeto Browne’s Jacksonville State (15).
Sydney’s Gorjok Gak’s Florida (4) v East Tennessee State (13)
Melbourne’s Dejan Vasiljevic’s Miami (8) v Michigan State (9)