October 14, 2023
Mid-major coaches find their niche with international recruiting
The influx of global players promises pace of play and a more level playing field in recruiting.
Just 10 years ago, the University of Vermont women’s basketball roster had zero international students. Five years ago, the team was composed of six students from Canada and eight from the United States. Today, head coach Alisa Kresge’s Catamounts will take the court with athletes from Canada, Serbia, Croatia, Spain, Greece and Latvia.
Like many other coaches in the mid-major ranks, Kresge has begun to capitalize on the international nature of women’s basketball in recent years. According to Kresge, this is an incredibly intentional choice. She found that she was constantly fighting over the same kids as other programs in the Northeast, and decided to tap into the talent overseas, putting significant resources and effort behind getting a pulse on the names and programs that exist abroad. She now has an assistant coach who was previously part of the Serbian national team, who is a huge asset when it comes to recruiting overseas players and growing Vermont’s reach abroad.
Beyond less competition for amazing talent, Kresge loves how international players fit into her system. “The game matches our philosophy, the way we like to play. They share the ball well, most can shoot well,” Kresge told The Next. “We’re always looking for players that fit our system, but I felt like they all want to play fast and they want to play offense. In that world, it’s been really good because they know how to move the ball, they can kind of see plays developing, it’s the IQ and they all want to score.”
In the WNBA’s 27th season, save 27% on your subscription!
The WNBA Finals may be over, but our staff of writers is working hard to bring you everything you need to know about the WNBA, women’s college basketball and much more. Get started with a paid subscription, which helps support all of our writers, editors and photographers who work tirelessly to bring you this coverage, and save 27%!
Kresge isn’t the only coach who has tapped into the overseas market and seen major results. Jose Fernandez at the University of South Florida currently has three players from the U.S. on his roster. The rest? Italy, Finland, Sweden, Colombia, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Israel, the Netherlands and four from Spain.
Last year, Elena Tsineke (Greece) and Dulcy Fankam Mendjiadeu (Cameroon) graduated from his program and were both drafted in the second round of the WNBA draft. Fankam Mendijadeu started 21 games for the Storm this season, providing valuable post presence on both ends of the court.
For Fernandez, international recruiting is not a new endeavor. “This has been a process that probably started about 10-12 years ago. When we made the switch from the BIG EAST to the American Conference, we had to find a really intentional way to find players that were going to keep us in the top 25 or 30 in the country,” said Fernandez, noting that the new conference wasn’t as strong at the time and he wanted to attract the same level of talent.
Fernandez said, “We had to find a different avenue to get the players that were going to help us continue to get to the NCAA tournament. So … we went international because the game has grown so much globally.”
The other USF — the one across the country in San Francisco — abides by a similar philosophy. Head coach Molly Goodenbour told The Next she went “all in” on international recruiting since starting at the school seven years ago, noting that she wanted to find a niche that would set her program apart in the WCC, and international recruiting was one that made sense in an international city like San Francisco.
It doesn’t hurt her chances that USF has a strong reputation for having a diverse student body and is ranked No. 1 in ethnic diversity among national universities in the U.S. News & World Report 2024. According to Goodenbour, “[USF] is a place that’s really set up to accommodate international kids. We’ve got the infrastructure in place with our international support service center; we have coursework that is adapted to kids that need extra time with the English language.”
Your business can reach over one million women’s sports fans every single month!
Here at The Next and The IX, our audience is a collection of the smartest, most passionate women’s sports fans in the world. If your business has a mission to serve these fans, you should reach out to Christie Gray at firstname.lastname@example.org to discuss ways to work together.
Logistically, Goodenbour, Fernandez and Kresge had similar answers when it came to the “how to” of snagging players from abroad: an assistant coach specializing in international recruiting who spends weeks every summer overseas, developing a network and attending tournaments. All acknowledged that it takes time.
Goodenbour said, “It took us probably two to three years to really hone in on the type of player that would be most successful here that would fit well, what countries we needed to look at, and that’s really evolved over the past eight years.”
Mark Campbell, who has coached at Oregon State, Oregon and Sacramento State and is now in his first year as the head coach at TCU, gives immediate credit to associate head coach Xavier Lopez, who he has worked with for 10 years. Lopez is from Barcelona and, Campbell says, “works as hard on the international recruiting scene as anyone in college basketball,” attending FIBA events and identifying players who can have a great impact on their programs.
Another place that all four coaches are aligned is their love of unique international playing styles and the exciting challenge of combining those styles to create a cohesive style.
Fernandez’s appreciation for the global game has paid off. Last season, South Florida was ranked 39th overall in field goal percentage and went 27-7 before losing to South Carolina in the NCAA Tournament. In total, the Bulls have missed the NCAA Tournament just twice since the move to the AAC that Fernandez referenced as a turning point in recruiting focuses.
“A lot of players see our style, with the amount of stagger screens and the handoffs and flares and misdirection stuff that we run, and it resembles their European games, so they feel comfortable going to a place where they’re gonna play with other international players and playing the system that they’re comfortable with,” Fernandez said.
He continued on to praise the skill level of European players, noting their advanced skill development and high basketball IQ, mentioning the possibility of the 24-second shot clock and eight-second backcourt count that exist overseas but not in U.S. high school games.
Campbell agrees. “International basketball in general, they start teaching their kids how to play in pick-and-rolls at a lot younger age than we do in the States, and that’s the core of our offensive system. … They’re able to kind of hit the ground running a lot quicker, and there’s just an older maturity level. They’re used to playing with older players.”
In Europe, because there are no high school scholastic sports, players begin playing with a pro team much earlier. Kresge loves the speed this brings to international players’ games, as well as the basketball IQ.
Goodenbour, like Fernandez, mentioned the importance of the 24-second shot clock in player development and speed and added, “The average international 18-year-old women’s basketball player is probably a little bit higher basketball IQ than the average American high school player of that same age. … Trying to blend those two styles of play, if you can take the best of the European or international style and the best of the American style and try to combine those two things, that’s when you get kind of a winning combination.”
Related reading, from 2021: International recruiting in the Ivy League is taking flight
Outside of basketball, all four coaches note the value that an international roster has on team culture and dynamics, as well as the major impact it has on both international players and local players to have an international-heavy roster. Campbell says that in his experience, international players “all bring a piece of their country and their home with them, and you get a blend of those. It just makes an incredible locker room. It’s really, really neat in developing an awesome environment and culture and it’s just fun and healthy as you build programs to bring those experiences from all around the world.”
At South Florida, Fernandez feels his players are more prepared for the real world as a result. “You go into the workplace, you’re going to work with people from all over the world,” he said. “And it’s really neat that American players build lifelong relationships with international players where after they graduate they have lifelong relationships and go visit.”
Goodenbour also noted the importance of building an international team and network. Goodenbour said “Every country has its own culture and its own way that [is] different from how we do things in the United States. And I think being able to expose people to that and that is one of the best parts of sports: Our differences are sometimes what make us strongest.”