Provo • It was one of the first questions new BYU basketball coach Mark Pope fielded at his introductory news conference back on April 10, right after queries about his probable assistant coaches, his emotional departure from Utah Valley and whether the resources and talent are in place for him to succeed right away.
Will the former NBA journeyman look overseas — where he played a couple of seasons in his nine-year professional career — for players to bolster a program that has slipped the past few seasons and hasn’t had an impactful international standout in nearly 10 years?
Pope said exactly what he was expected to say — that his staff “will cast our net throughout the entire country and around the world” in search of talented players who can handle BYU’s stringent academic standards and abide by its Honor Code.
“We have the capability to do that here,” he said. “We have the resources to be able to go do that. It is something that we are excited about. It is going to take an inordinate amount of time and work, but that is what we do best. … We plan on relentlessly chasing it.”
Harder than it looks
However, those who have recruited internationally — at BYU and other schools in the West — say it is much more difficult than people think.
“People think that BYU has this worldwide connection through [The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints], and all these things, but that really isn’t true,” said one source close to the program who asked for anonymity so he could speak freely about the subject. “When it comes to men’s basketball recruiting, that worldwide reach is definitely overstated.”
Pope and assistants Chris Burgess, Cody Fueger and Nick Robinson will have to rely on their own personal connections and relationships, experts say, and not sit around waiting for church members outside the United States to phone in recruiting tips. It just doesn’t happen.
Sure, BYU women’s coach Jeff Judkins has landed several international recruits the past few seasons, and BYU men’s volleyball coach Shawn Olmstead annually stocks his roster with great players from overseas. But men’s basketball recruiting — especially overseas — is a totally different animal.
Because to get the really good foreign men’s basketball players, you have to pay for them.
It’s one of men’s college basketball’s dirty little secrets: A lot of the best international players have “handlers” — quasi-agents who dictate everything.
“You have to pay [the player], and you also have to pay the guy who is in charge of him, because the guy in charge of him is telling him where to go,” said one coach who spoke anonymously because of the sensitivity of the topic.
The man Pope replaced — affable and even-tempered Dave Rose — grew noticeably irritated in the final years of his 14-year tenure when he was asked repeatedly why he didn’t recruit more international players. Once, in a moment of relaxed resignation, he said it was because “we can’t afford them.”
There was some truth to that offhand comment.
Several coaches said the current college basketball recruiting corruption case that has allegedly implicated Arizona, LSU, Kansas and other schools is just the tip of the iceberg. There are many who say the corruption in international recruiting is worse.
Another hurdle: tests and transcripts
A year ago, BYU was heavily involved in recruiting Russian star Agasiy Tonoyan, a 6-foot-8 forward from Moscow, and prospects of landing the teenager appeared good. Tonoyan had played a year at a prep school in Kansas, seemed to speak English reasonably well and didn’t have a handler asking for payment.
However, Tonoyan took the language proficiency test known as the TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language) and apparently didn’t score high enough to be accepted by BYU, which has the reputation of not bending on admissions as easily as most other schools.
“If the new guy comes in and has really good connections overseas, that would be great,” Rose told 1280 The Zone a few days after he retired. “But there are real issues here. I mean, we can’t bring a kid to BYU and have him have an interpreter for two years. OK? He has to speak English. He has to make a score on the TOEFL test that qualifies him for admissions here. And that’s different than everybody else who is recruiting foreign players. … So that whittles down the pool [for BYU].”
Getting the proper transcripts can also be troublesome, especially when there is a language barrier.
Rose said last year that getting Shenghze Li, the 7-footer from Shanghai, China, admitted into BYU “was a real headache” due to course transcript issues. Li was referred to BYU by his high school coach at Santa Margarita Catholic in Southern California, Jeff Reinert, a former Cougar assistant.
But Pope apparently didn’t like the fit, and Reinert confirmed two weeks ago that BYU released Li from his National Letter of Intent in what both sides called a mutual agreement.
A Brazilian pipeline?
Then there’s the case of another international signee from November, Wasatch Academy forward Bernardo Da Silva, who is from Rio de Janeiro. There are rumblings that Pope might ask Da Silva to look elsewhere, much like he did with Li.
Da Silva told The Salt Lake Tribune last week that he still plans to stick with BYU, despite the coaching change. “I like coach Pope,” he said. “I still feel really good about it.”
Da Silva, who has been at Wasatch Academy for three years and speaks English well, was scheduled to take the TOEFL last Saturday.
Here’s the rub if his test scores meet BYU standards but he still gets turned away by the new staff: A relationship with Walter Roese, technical director of the NBA Academy in Mexico, could be damaged. A native Brazilian, Roese helped Da Silva get to Wasatch Academy and was a BYU assistant under Rose from 2005 to ’07.
Another Brazilian at the private boarding school in Mount Pleasant, 6-6 junior guard Leonardo Colimerio, is said to be better than Da Silva. Colimerio said he already has offers from Illinois, Minnesota and others, in addition to BYU. He said Pope has already made at least two visits to Wasatch to meet with him and three other juniors BYU has offered — Caleb Lohner, Mady Sissoko and Richie Saunders.
Colimerio is from the same state in Brazil that produced former BYU guard Luiz Lemes.
“I’ve talked to BYU a lot,” he said. “I really, really like BYU."
A rebuilt Brazilian pipeline? The Cougars had a strong presence there a decade ago, boasting the likes of Lemes, who set a BYU record for assists in an NCAA Tournament game, with nine vs. Syracuse; center Rafael Araujo, who was selected No. 8 overall by Toronto in the 2004 NBA draft; and Jonathan Tavernari a 2010 graduate has enjoyed a successful pro career overseas.
Colimerio might represent one of those personal connection the Cougars can’t afford to waste, especially if they are serious about recruiting the world.
And that will be far from easy.
BYU’S NOTABLE FOREIGN-BORN PLAYERS
• Kresimir Cosic (Yugoslavia) — Inducted into Basketball Hall of Fame
• Timo Lampen (Finland) — First international player on a U.S. college roster
• Kari Liimo (Finland) — Drafted by the Lakers in 1969
• Timo Saarelainen (Finland) — WAC Player of the Year in 1985
• Kalevi “Monni” Sarkalahti (Finland) — Drafted by the Suns in 1973
• Phil Tollestrup (Canada) — Represented his country in the 1976 Summer Olympics
• Jimmy Balderson (Canada) — Solid four-year career began in 2001-02
• Luiz Lemes (Brazil) — Set BYU record for assists in an NCAA Tournament game, nine vs. Syracuse
• Rafael Araujo (Brazil) — Selected No. 8 overall by Toronto in the 2004 NBA draft
• Jonathan Tavernari (Brazil) — 2010 graduate has enjoyed a successful pro career overseas
• Charles Abouo (Ivory Coast) — Part of 113 wins at BYU, never missed a game entire career