More than a dozen Australians across ten teams will line up in college basketball’s NCAA Tournament. And they all hope to emulate a pioneering run a quarter-century ago.
When Aussie ballers head over to school in the States, as they have in droves over the past decade, they go with the hope that they’ll get to play in March Madness. While college ball is more than ever seen as an intermediate stage before heading off on a pro career, the allure of the tournament remains powerful – the immense popularity of the event has an imprint on the public consciousness that even the NBA finds hard to match.
For Australian hoops legend Andrew Gaze, his experience in college and the tournament in particular has special resonance. Gaze played a single season for Seton Hall University in 1988-89, part of a team that went to the Final Four.
As Gaze tells it, he was in a very different situation back then. The notion of a college team like St Mary’s, which produced Patty Mills and Matthew Dellavedova and currently boasts seven Aussies on its roster, was fanciful. “I was something unique over there,” he says. “They weren’t accustomed to having international players. There had been a few, but not the volume there is today. It’s commonplace now.”
Gaze found his way to the New Jersey school, where PJ Carlesimo was basketball coach, after touring the US with his NBL team, the Melbourne Tigers, in 1986. ““We played against Seton Hall and I had 44. So PJ saw me.”
Already a dual Olympian when he arrived on campus, Gaze became an integral part of a team that advanced to the title game, along the way eliminating UNLV and Duke, who would combine to win the next three NCAA championships. Against Michigan in the final, the Pirates lost by a single point, in overtime.
Gaze became something of a sensation that March, earning most outstanding player honours for the west regional (the portion of games before the Final Four). He had intended to return for another season, but success had unintended consequences. “Every year after 20, you lose a year of eligibility, and I had just turned 23. We were appealing on the basis of I would have come earlier, if it wasn’t for the Olympics.
“If we hadn’t got through to the championship game, no one probably would’ve batted an eyelid. Because there was a foreigner, and I got a lot of exposure in the tournament … All of sudden ‘who is this guy?’
“There was absolutely nothing in it, but the heat was on. At the time, it was felt we wouldn’t continue with the appeals process because we didn’t want it to look bad on the school.”
Curiously, Gaze’s motives in going to Seton Hall really were collegiate. “Hand on heart, I was going over there because I wanted to play for PJ and I wanted a basketball experience, but the number-one reason I went there was because of the Olympics, I was struggling to finish my degree,” he says.
Compared to today, when Ben Simmons barely spent a year at LSU and very little of that time in a classroom (and, incidentally, did not get the chance to play in the tournament), that attitude is almost quaint. “This was legitimately a chance to get two semesters of education in, in a time where it’s summer here, I could get some credits for my course. So the basketball was important, but if it was not for the academics, I never would’ve gone.”