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Australian pipeline fueling California Baptist, UC Riverside

Randy Bennett perfected it, and coaches from his tree are still banking on talent from Down Under to elevate their mid-major programs.

Tre Armstrong is part of the Australian surge at CBU.
CBU Athletics

Saint Mary’s burst onto the national scene in the mid-2000s, becoming a bona fide mid-major darling and mainstay in the NCAA Tournament conversation. Back then, the Gaels’ first flickers of success under Randy Bennett were fueled in large part by something that has become a part of the program’s identity.

Australians.

Aussies Daniel Kickert, Carlin Hughes, Patty Mills and others helped lay the path for the 2009-10 team that burst into the Sweet 16, and featured five Aussies itself. Through (non-Aussie) Omar Samhan’s swagger and (Aussie) Matthew Dellavedova’s mouthguard, the Gales had carved out a place for themselves, but it wasn’t just American college basketball fans taking notice.

There were plenty of people watching half-the-world away, and that included a young boy on the Australian island state of Tasmania.

“Saint Mary’s games were on ESPN back home. Watching those Saint Mary’s teams that had five or six Aussies at a time, they were a team in particular I used to watch,” California Baptist sophomore guard Tre Armstrong said. “They gave me that ambition to want to come and play college basketball [in the U.S.].”

As he gets set to start his sophomore year, Armstrong turned that dream into reality, and he’s far from the only one. Per RealGM.com, the Lancers’ guard is among 157 Australians currently on NCAA rosters across all three divisions, representing an influx of talent across the Pacific Ocean and into U.S. college basketball. Bennett and SMC made that pipeline famous, but few other schools are taking advantage like CBU.

It’s fast becoming a calling card of a starry-eyed program.

The Lancers begin their third season in Division I having had a steady Australian presence throughout their brief time at the sport’s highest level. They enter the season with three Aussies on the roster, highlighted by sophomores Armstrong (15.8 MPG, 4.0 PPG) and Sydney native Reed Nottage (14.8 MPG, 3.1 PPG), who both got immediate playing time as freshmen last year. They also welcome another Sydney native in Florida graduate transfer Gorjok Gak.

That number figures to grow, as the Lancers signed two more players from Down Under earlier this month, which included Armstrong’s younger brother Taran, the second-ranked Australian prospect per DraftExpress. For the older Armstrong, the NCAA is a clear draw for young players in a country where he says basketball continues to grow every year, though it stills falls behind Australian Rules Football in the sports pecking order.

“The attention it gets from the media and the platform that people have the chance to play on is so, so much bigger than we’re used to in Australia,” he said. “These days it’s the mindset that if you can get to [a U.S.] college and work your way into a pro league, it’s a great pathway to take.”

The sophomore said that CBU head coach Rick Croy and assistant Doc Wellman have built great relationships in Australia, which should come as no surprise. Croy, who enters his seventh year leading the Lancers, spent three seasons on Bennett’s bench at SMC. When he joined the Gaels as an assistant in 2010, he joined a program already embedded in the Australian recruiting scene. What started in 2002 from a phone call from a friend who had just been on a recruiting trip in Australia to Bennett, then a first-year coach desperate for talent, has led to a gaggle of Aussies in Riverside, Calif.

CBU’s campus sits just nine miles from UC Riverside, where the Highlanders have assembled a roster with even more Australian flair.

UCR enters the season with six Aussies (as well as three players from New Zealand), built through former coach David Patrick, another ex-Gaels assistant and Australian himself, who left for a position on Eric Musselman’s staff at Arkansas in July. The Highlanders elevated assistant Mike Magpayo into the head role, and he takes over as no stranger to that recruiting strategy. Magpayo got his first job in college basketball at Columbia under Kyle Smith, who spent nine years as an assistant at SMC.

NCAA Basketball: Gonzaga at St. Mary’s
SMC transfer Jock Perry is one of six Australians on UC Riverside’s roster.
Darren Yamashita-USA TODAY Sports

Magpayo talked about recruiting Down Under with HoopsHD.com earlier this year.

“We want great guys with a great work ethic who you would not be afraid to let them watch your kids. They come from a culture who have a great approach to practices and building a team, which has helped us become a winning program.”

For Armstrong, it was culture that swayed him 7,000-plus miles to other end of Riverside.

“[Croy’s] intesnity about the game of basketball is something that resonated with our family,” he said. “We pride ourselves on our passion for the sport. It was clear he was a guy who was passionate and had clear path for me and what I could do at California Baptist. It’s an opportunity to be a part of something special.”

And it has a been special start for the Lancers in Division I.

The team burst onto the scene in 2018-19, winning their first Division I road game at Oral Roberts with a buzzer beater and then notching one of the mid-major upsets of the year by beating WAC juggernaut New Mexico State in their league opener. Those moments helped lead to a 16-win debut season and spot in the CBI, and they followed it up with an even better 2019-20 campaign.

CBU was sitting on 21 wins when the season was cancelled in March, which included a second place finish (10-6) in the WAC regular season race. Over the two seasons, the Lancers have begun crafting an intriguing identity in Division I, centered around a sparkling new arena and an efficient, three-point happy offense. Like Grand Canyon, their program potential also holds major importance in a WAC that saw two more teams leave this offseason — CSU Bakersfield and Kansas City — and is desperate to find programs to consistently buoy the league with NMSU.

Though largely in a supporting role, Armstrong fit right in, scorching the nets from deep in games against Central Arkansas (17 points, 5-7 3FG), Mississippi Valley State (15 points, 3-6 3FG) and Grand Canyon (12 points, 4-5 3FG). The sophomore will likely get plenty of chances to build on those flashes this upcoming season, in whatever form it takes. The Lancers lose their top four scorers, and none bigger than reigning WAC Player of the Year Milan Acquaah, who bullied defenses over his two seasons in Riverside.

Armstrong said Acquaah’s work ethic set a great example for the team, which will push forward with redshirt junior Ty Rowell (8.1 PPG, 40.6% 3FG) and others to implement Croy’s trigger-happy system. The team will also rely on transfers like Gak, three-point marksman Mark Carbone (New Hampshire) and versatile guard Jorden Caruso (Incarnate Word), as well as Armstrong and Nottage (3.1 PPG, 34.8 3FG%), who are one full-year into their college careers in the U.S.

Armstrong got a chance to go home to Tasmania between March and July, and then returned to a team that he says has kept a tight bubble amid the pandemic. It was all a part of a transitionary, globe-trotting year.

“For me the big thing is everything is amplified, there’s a lot more attention. Everything in general in America is just a little bit bigger, so it was just getting used to the shock of how big and how popular everything is,” he said. “Being able to adjust and trust yourself was a big thing for me, and this year i feel incredibly comfortable on and off the court and loving living in Riverside.”

Croy and Lancers are seemingly banking on more Aussies making that smooth transition to life in the program and helping elevate it within the WAC. Like their counterparts up the road in Riverside, it’s a proven strategy to attract talent to mid-major programs that is still alive and well in California.