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Europe to Evanston: Northwestern's Unlikely Basketball Pipeline

by Kevin Trahan (@k_trahan)

Ever since he came to the United States from Romania following his sophomore year of high school, Alex Olah knew he was going to be a Northwestern Wildcat. He attended Traders Point Christian Academy in Zionsville, Ind., and looked at Valparaiso and Purdue, but “Northwestern was the best choice ever.”

Heck, Olah knew he wanted to be a Wildcat back when he was being recruited by Bill Carmody in Romania.

“Actually, when I was back in Romania, I didn’t know anything about college,” Olah said. “Funny story, I thought that I was going to come here and play straight for Northwestern my sophomore year of high school.

“I figured it out (before I came) because I asked them and they said, ‘You have to stay two years in high school and get ready and everything, and then you’re going to come here and play and so on.’”

Olah is the latest in a long line of Eastern European players to come to play basketball for Northwestern. He joins junior forward Nikola Cerina of Serbia on this team, along with Croatian assistant coach Ivan Vujic. Since Carmody arrived in Evanston 13 years ago, he has brought in nine players from Eastern Europe and the Balkans.

It’s an unlikely pipeline, but one that has helped Northwestern build its basketball program throughout the past decade.

The NU pipeline to Europe got its beginnings in Split, Croatia. The NU pipeline to Europe got its beginnings in Split, Croatia.

The Beginnings

Northwestern University sits about 15 miles from the center of Chicago, the most fertile recruiting ground in the country. However, the Wildcats’ first recruiting pipeline got its origins nearly 5,000 miles away in Split, Croatia.

NU might like to think it’s Chicago’s Big Ten Team, but the Wildcats couldn’t compete with the big boys for the city’s top players. Instead, Carmody had to get creative, even if that meant traveling halfway around the world.

“When I first got here, we couldn’t really get involved with too many Chicago guys and all that stuff and went over and got some Croatian guys,” Carmody said.

Those “Croatian guys” were Vedran Vukusic and Davor Duvancic, both of Split, Croatia.

“I think I heard about those guys and said that I’d make a trip,” Carmody said. “I think it was Vedran, actually, that I heard about and when I was over there I saw Davor and I liked him too, so that’s basically how it started. I wish there was some behind the scenes stuff or anything like that, but it was basically that — I said I’d take a trip over there and see what I see.”

Carmody’s trip came late in the recruiting season, and had things not fallen into place quickly, there might not have been a European pipeline to NU at all. Originally, Duvancic’s plan had been to test the junior college waters in the US and hope to be picked up by a four-year program. But after Carmody and former assistant Craig Robinson visited for three days to watch practices and eventually offered scholarships to Duvancic and Vukusic, the plans changed quickly for both players.

“Coach called me — it was like two in the morning the first time he called me, I don’t know why he called me at two,” Duvancic said. “I didn’t know anything about Northwestern, to be honest. I mean, Chicago, I’d seen the movies, but that’s about it. Vedran and I talked to each other and we didn’t know anything about it. We Googled it and found out about the Big Ten and found the schools.

“I was already enrolled in college in Croatia. I was never supposed to be here, so to speak.”

After doing their homework and learning about the program and the style of play, both players committed to NU. They quickly took the SATs in order to become eligible, and once they met eligibility standards, they officially accepted scholarships to NU. Thus began the Europe-to-Evanston pipeline that has lasted for the past 13 years.

Davor Duvancic (pictured) and Vedran Vukusic started NU's pipeline from Europe. Davor Duvancic (pictured) and Vedran Vukusic started NU's pipeline from Europe.

A Perfect Fit

Eastern Europe and the Balkans have a rich basketball history. Of course, it doesn’t come close to matching the talent pool in the United States, but the Balkans, specifically, have arguably the second-best basketball talent in the world. Ex-Yugoslavia is home to great players such as Vlade Divac, Tony Kukoc, Dino Radja, Drazen Petrovich and so many others. Even after wars in the Balkans broke out, the Croatian national team placed second behind the United States at the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona.

“It’s unbelievable how many young people actually come through that area when it comes to basketball,” Duvancic said. “The overall talent pool is unbelievably rich because it’s tradition. It’s something that, growing up you either play football (soccer) or basketball — there was nothing else.”

However, while basketball is big, there is very little information about colleges in the US. Not only did Duvancic and Vukusic know very little about Northwestern when they were contacted by Carmody, even younger players such as Olah had no knowledge of the team.

“I knew zero stuff about college basketball,” Olah said. “Zero. I barely knew (anything) about the NBA because we don’t have stations for the NBA or college or whatever."

Even when the information is there, it’s sometimes tough to convince a player to forgo a contract from a club team in order to come to America for college.

“It’s a tough sell because if you’re really good and a club comes to you and offers you some money, and you’re coming from a poor economic situation and family, you’re going to take the money,” Duvancic said. “You’re not going to necessarily take a four-year education in the US, and then try to come back and play in Europe.

“The other thing is, a lot of people don’t understand the value of an education — a United States education.”

But for those who do understand the value of an education, Northwestern is the perfect fit.

In the club system in Europe, players are forced to choose between playing basketball and going to school. The “student athlete” tag is nonexistent. So for players who want an education, but also want to play basketball, coming to the US is the best option.

“In Europe, you can’t find something like (the American school system),” Olah said. “You either have to choose between basketball or school, but I wanted to do both, so that’s why I came here.”

Of all the schools in the US, Northwestern presents one of the best options for European players. It’s a top academic school that can help set kids up for life after basketball, and it also has a diverse student body.

“You just present Northwestern University and present the system of education and basketball, how they work here together,” assistant coach Ivan Vujic said. “And if they’re serious about it, about education, then they decide to come here for college.”

From a basketball standpoint, Northwestern’s system allows players to excel. The Wildcats run the Princeton offense, which is similar to how teams play in Europe. NU might not always have the best athletes, but it makes up for the talent deficiency by running the Princeton, which is similar to how European teams have had success.

“You have to have a high basketball IQ in order to play in this (offense),” Duvancic said. “People underestimate the ability of passing the ball to the area, to the spot where you think someone is going to get there. So, it’s actually almost reading someone a step before they take it. You have to be able to read the game, you have to be able to read how the defender has positioned themselves — if their head is turned, that’s a signal to you right away that you have to throw them the ball.

“A lot of that, you see in Europe because, yes, there’s not a whole lot of athletic ability in terms of European basketball, so you have to be able to exploit what you have. The best way to do so is to run set plays and the Princeton offense, which gives you that split-second advantage that no athletic ability will give you the opportunity to recover from. That’s how you score.”

Duvancic and Vukusic’s success in the system early on made it attractive to other players from Europe who saw that they, too, possess the skills necessary to play well in the Princeton offense. Combining the on-court success and the academic prestige of NU makes the program extremely attractive to European players.

“Just talking to the players, it’s both,” Carmody said. “You can’t pinpoint it necessarily this, this or this — it’s a combination, it’s the whole package that Northwestern has to offer.”

NU assistant coach Ivan Vujic has given recruits from Europe someone to relate to. NU assistant coach Ivan Vujic has given recruits from Europe someone to relate to.

When One Domino Falls: Familiarity with the Program

It only takes one domino to fall for a chain reaction to begin. In this case, Duvancic and Vukusic represented the first domino for NU basketball to begin its pipeline to Eastern Europe.

“It’s like if you get California kids and you’re on the East Coast, then California guys are like, ‘Yeah, they got the guy from LA.’ Or a guy from Orange County, and then they say, ‘Okay, I guess it’s okay to go back east, and stuff,’” Carmody said. “So I think that’s all it is. It’s happened with other programs, you’ll see that happening.”

For the past five years, Vujic has helped lead the Wildcats’ recruiting efforts in the Balkans and Eastern Europe. That has been a major boost for the program and given prospective players someone to relate to. Vujic is from Croatia and played two years at Vincennes Junior College and two more at Valparaiso. He played professionally in Europe before returning to coach at Valparaiso, DePaul and NU.

“I think (Vujic) is one of the reasons (for the pipeline), because he knows the mentality of players from Europe and where they come from,” Cerina said. “He’s been around European players and he knows how to behave, and what they need and what they want, so when he talks to them, I assume he knows what he’s doing and can talk to them and easily see what their desires are and comfort them.”

Cerina went to TCU for two years before coming to NU, in part because the Horned Frogs had two other Croatian players. However, that wasn’t enough to make him feel at home in Fort Worth, Texas. Chicago is still a long ways from home, but it’s less of a culture shock than Texas was.

“The city is way more diverse than Fort Worth was, so that obviously helps,” Cerina said. “I found a few Serbian restaurants around here and the food is exactly like home, so that helps a lot.”

But it wasn’t the food or the city that was the biggest selling point for Cerina on his visit to Northwestern. It was something else entirely.

“My teammates,” Cerina said. “People ask me that over and over, and I always say it’s my teammates. I went and visited different schools and I’d been at TCU for two years, and when I came here, when I met the guys, I just knew that was going to be my place.

“Players here are more open to foreign players coming here, I guess since Northwestern has a tradition of bringing players from Europe, so that obviously helps players to adjust and be more acceptable to players from different countries.”

NU’s players — not just the European ones — are always Carmody’s biggest selling point.

“Your players are your best recruiters once you get them on campus,” Carmody said.

Duvancic had the same experience as Cerina in regard to the players, and he said that NU’s players are naturally more open to foreigners.

“The people that Northwestern attracts, they’re extremely high-character, extremely good people, extremely personable people,” he said. “There are no selfish people, no so-called pricks, or anyone outside there.

“Originally, I was amazed, because we came nine days after 9/11. We didn’t know what to expect once we walked in that locker room, but from day one, they adopted us like we were a part of the team for a long time. It was such a relieving feeling, and it speaks volumes of the people that coach recruits and the technique that he uses to identify the players.”

Alex Olah is part of NU's next group of European players. Alex Olah is part of NU's next group of European players.

Adapting to Life in America

When Vujic travels to Europe to find new talent, he not only has the challenge of recruiting young talent, he also has to help players adapt when they come to Evanston. He doesn’t tell players what to do, but he lays out a possible blueprint and always suggests that players come to the US for their last two years of high school.

Vujic didn’t have that option, but he did get two years in junior college to adapt before playing at the Division 1 level. Olah’s path is the example Vujic would most like to see players take.

Olah still had to adapt — the American education system and the basketball system are much different — but it is much easier to adapt while in high school. Cerina went straight to TCU from Serbia, and thus, struggled with his transition.

“It was an enormous transition,” Cerina said. “First of all, I came because of basketball and that was a big transition because I practiced and worked out about six or seven hours a day, which was not the case in Serbia. Even in Serbia, even if we worked out that much, our workouts were way easier, so the big transition, especially for me, was to get up at 5 a.m. to lift weights.

“I never lifted weights before I came to the US, so to get up at 5 a.m. and go to the weight room, that was a big transition, but it didn’t take me a while to get used to that.”

Duvancic noticed the difference right away.

“I remember when Vedran and I came at first — he did way better than I did originally — the game was faster, the guys were bigger and just overall, trying to adjust, it took us awhile,” Duvancic said. “In Europe you’re used to running set plays, you run the clock down, you set a lot of screens and then you score. Here, especially in the Big Ten, there’s a lot of athletic ability.

“Trying to catch up with the guys, it took us awhile. We had never lifted before in our lives before we got here. It was a whole new world for us when we got introduced to it, but, I mean, you have to learn quick; you have to adapt.”

But beyond basketball, players that come straight to America face obstacles that their teammates and opponents don’t have to deal with. It’s tough being in a foreign country and so far from home, and Duvancic said that all foreign players tend to hit a wall at some point.

“After those first three months you kind of hit the wall, like, ‘Do I really belong here? Can I really succeed here?’” Duvancic said. “Then, all you have to do is put your head down and work through it, because once you get over the initial hump, it’s a whole different ballgame from there on.”

Duvancic and Vukusic spent a lot of time together to try to get over that initial hump, and like they had each other, current European players at NU have Vujic to relate to. Most importantly, they decided together that what they came to NU to accomplish, in basketball and in life, was worth occasional struggles.

“When you run on the court in front of 5,000 or 10,000 people, it tells you you’re a part of something big, so why not stick with it and help make this even bigger,” Duvancic said. “Overall, once we got over the initial hump, we started understanding we can compete in the classroom, we can compete off the court, we can be productive members of society, why not keep this going as far as we possibly can?”

The Future 

So how far can this thing go? By all indications, the pipeline from Eastern Europe to Evanston isn’t slowing down. Northwestern is able to recruit the Chicago area much better than it was when Carmody first arrived, but there are still challenges the Wildcats face when trying to lure in top recruits from the area, from facilities to lack of prestige.

“Now (Carmody) is more focused on the US and the Chicago pool, because the Chicago pool is rich in terms of talent,” Duvancic said. “Now we just need to identify the right kids, and obviously Shurna was a great example of that. We got on him very early and he committed to us. Maybe a disadvantage to us is we need to be the very first move on the kid, because the branding is not there yet. Once Michigan State comes, it’s Michigan State. Northwestern has to be there from freshman days, sophomore days, on the kid to get them to sign early.”

Even as the program grows and NU starts to get in the conversation with more top recruits in the US, the pipeline to Eastern Europe won’t disappear, since players in that area still fit into the Wildcats’ system well. Ultimately, recruiting is about getting the right players, not always the best ones.

“It’s just, what are you trying to recruit as a coach?” Duvancic said. “Where can you find the talent that can fit in your system and fit the academics you have to actually come to school?”

In that sense, Eastern European players and Northwestern have proven to be just about the perfect match throughout the years. And for that reason, what appears on the surface to be perhaps the most unlikely pipeline in college basketball, will likely continue for quite awhile.