Culture shock: Arizona and the challenges of international recruiting

SEATTLE, WA - FEBRUARY 07: Arizona Wildcats head coach Adia Barnes calls a time out during a college basketball game between the Arizona Wildcats against the Washington Huskies on February 07, 2019, at Alaska Airlines Arena at Hec Edmundson Pavilion in Seattle, WA. (Photo by Joseph Weiser/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
SEATTLE, WA - FEBRUARY 07: Arizona Wildcats head coach Adia Barnes calls a time out during a college basketball game between the Arizona Wildcats against the Washington Huskies on February 07, 2019, at Alaska Airlines Arena at Hec Edmundson Pavilion in Seattle, WA. (Photo by Joseph Weiser/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images) /

The University of Arizona looks overseas for talent

When Adia Barnes was hired at Arizona in 2016, she had two major tasks to rebuild her alma mater to the program it was when she wore a Wildcat uniform: restore a winning culture and upgrade the talent. Last season, she and her staff brought in a class that was ranked No. 1 in the Pac-12, including the programs’ first-ever McDonald’s All-American. It led to a WNIT championship.

More from International

Barnes knew that the 2018 class was an aberration, though. Throughout the 2018-19 season, she talked about the fact that Arizona is not yet at a point where U.S. players of that caliber think about the program as a destination. So, what do you do if you can’t get top Americans, but need to improve your program? For the Wildcats, the best option is to look overseas.

That option includes obstacles, too. Most importantly, you need connections. Barnes has her own ties overseas from her year of playing professionally in Europe. She also has another advantage–her assistant coach and husband, Salvo Coppa.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                       A native of Italy, Coppa is the son of Santino Coppa, whose career coaching European women’s basketball stretches back to 1970. The younger Coppa followed in his father’s footsteps, spending years coaching in Europe and Asia as both an assistant and head coach before accompanying Barnes to the United States.

The experience and connections Coppa built over the years have paid off when it comes time to look overseas for recruits. It’s not just about speaking four languages. It’s about knowing the terrain and the culture of international basketball.

That terrain lies in basketball clubs around the world. International players begin serious development in the club systems of their countries, which vary depending on where they live.

“There are clubs that can be first division or second division, and these are called professional clubs,” Coppa said. “And they have their teams, their junior team, their under-17 team, (under) 15 . And then when the player becomes good, they make a choice or they go to play for the pro team. And they are (not) professional, because usually they don’t get paid when they’re so young. Or they play for some years there and then they go to college. Really, it depends. That’s one kind of club.

“There’s a second kind of club that is not very common in Italy but is more common in Spain, for example, or in Australia. It’s similar to college or high school. So, the club thinks about your school and you study there in a high school that is on the campus of the club. In the afternoon, you study. At the end of high school, you get recruited by colleges in your junior year, because they know the rules (in the U.S.) very well. So the coaches allow the players to talk to (U.S. college) coaches only during their junior years. It’s different, and it depends on the country where you are playing or studying.”

Knowing the different systems and how they work is crucial for U.S. college coaches who hope to successfully recruit overseas players. The experiences of players in the second kind of system may make it an easier transition to NCAA basketball, where school and basketball are linked. For many players, though, it comes down to one decision: pursue professional basketball opportunities immediately close to home, or put off making money and spend time getting a college degree in the U.S.

Basketball skills and willingness to put off a professional career aren’t all that matter when it comes time to recruit international players, however. Coaches often speak of the importance of their programs’ cultures.

To find players who fit that internal culture, it is imperative to learn about their personal backgrounds. Getting that information takes more effort than it does in the U.S. because the entire process is different. Distance certainly adds extra challenges, but so does the culture around the sport overseas.

Differences in the sport’s culture start with the timeframe for recruiting. Overseas, it is compressed and the recruits are older. While 14-year-old players in the U.S. may already be considering schools and getting national publicity on the grassroots circuit, the process in Europe doesn’t start until at least the junior year of high school.

There’s also much more involvement by the players’ families when recruiting U.S. players according to Coppa. That makes it easier to learn about the girls’ backgrounds and character. The reduced family involvement overseas means coaches need to find other ways to gather that background information. Events like the European Championships or the World Cup may provide the opportunity to watch potential recruits play, but there’s more to the recruiting equation.

“As you know, we look so much into the character of the player,” Coppa said. “It is important to have people that you trust overseas, and you can ask questions about her personality, her family.”

Regardless of which kind of club system a player comes from, if she opts for college, she will have to adapt once she gets to the U.S. The adjustments aren’t just social or academic. Even the way the game is officiated, especially in the Pac-12, is different, Coppa said. That can often lead to frustration for international players.

“There are different rules regarding traveling,” he said. “They whistle a lot of traveling (in Europe), and then sometimes they allow more physicality. Here, the referee whistles a lot and allows you to play with much more technique, in the sense–just to give you a clear example–if you’re shooting a jump shot and they touch your elbow, this modifies your shot. Referees here whistle this kind of call. Sometimes in Europe, especially the hand checking, they kind of ignore that. So it becomes a little bit more physical, but on the other end, they whistle a lot of travels.”

The Wildcats’ entire 2019 class will soon be faced with the challenges of adapting to NCAA basketball. Arizona’s class includes four international players who have not yet arrived in Tucson and one who arrived in December. Helena Pueyo (Spain), Birna Benonysdottir (Iceland), Mara Mote (Latvia), and Sevval Gul (Turkey) are all still overseas. Tara Manumaleuga (Australia/New Zealand) has the advantage of six months spent with the team.

The four who haven’t spent time in Tucson won’t be here until August; they are currently playing for their national teams. That will prevent them from taking part in summer classes or workouts that incoming freshmen often take advantage of. The Arizona coaching staff is not concerned, though.

“They’re playing pretty good competition,” Coppa said. “They’re going to compete for the European Championship in Sarajevo, Bosnia.”

It doesn’t stop with the 2019 class, either. The Wildcats’ lone commit for 2020, Turkish point guard Derin Erdogan, is also competing in the European Championships. Her team is in Skopje, North Macedonia for the FIBA U18 Women’s European Championships, Division B.

Once the 2019 recruits arrive in August, it will be time to find their footing in the NCAA basketball world.

“Some of them are going to be able to play right away and be comfortable right away,” Coppa said. “And some of them need to adapt to American basketball, college basketball, first. But all of them have talent, so I think with some adjustment they can contribute right away.”

Arizona fans will have to wait at least four more months to see what those contributions look like, but they can follow some of the players with their national teams in the meantime. First up will be the FIBA U18 Women’s European Championship, Division B beginning July 5 in Skopje. Erdogan will lead Turkey against Iceland on Friday. The FIBA U18 Women’s European Championship, Division A will kick off the next day in Sarajevo. There, Pueyo is expected to be one of the stars of the tournament.

Love our 24/7 women’s basketball coverage? Join our Patreon now and support this work, while getting extra goodies and subscriber-only content for yourself.