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The Aussie Rules

Though he hails from a country not known for producing basketball prodigies, Utah sophomore Andrew Bogut has become the best big man in this nation

Andrew Bogut's off-campus apartment in Salt Lake City isn't much to look at. The main room's walls are stark white, unadorned by pictures or posters. The kitchen counters, also white, have nothing on them. An ironing board and an iron are set against one wall in the dining area, illuminated by a single overhead light. The sanctuary of Utah's 7-foot sophomore center is monastic, except for one detail: the rented big-screen TV that at this moment is showing the Illinois-Michigan basketball game. ¶ Bogut, a 20-year-old Australian, slouches in a wooden chair before the vast box, bathed in its bluish glow. Watching games is not a distraction from his schoolwork, as it might be for other students. It's a critical part of his career preparation. "That's where he lives, in front of the TV," says Tim Drisdom, Bogut's roommate and the Utes' junior point guard. "NBA, college hoops--he watches them every night. He's trying to get ready. Even with everything that's happening, he hasn't lost focus."

What exactly is happening that might distract Bogut from his hoops education? Reporters, photographers, fans and agents' representatives all want a piece of him. Just six months after his surprise star turn on Australia's Olympic team, Bogut has emerged as the best big man in college basketball and a lock to be a lottery pick in the June NBA draft. After a year of seasoning in the controlled system of former Utah coach Rick Majerus, the young center is thriving in the up-tempo game of new coach Ray Giacoletti. At week's end the Utes, fueled by Bogut's 20.0 points, 11.9 rebounds, 1.9 blocks and 64.5% shooting, had won 16 straight games--by an average of 17.4 points--and ascended to No. 14 in the AP poll, their highest ranking in four years.

"Bogut is an impossible matchup," says New Mexico coach Ritchie McKay, who watched as Bogut dropped 24 points and 20 rebounds on his Lobos on Jan. 22. "He's the best big-man passer I've ever seen in college. He makes everyone on his team better, and that's rare for a post player."

As a post passer Bogut, who can catch, pass and shoot equally well with either hand, has been compared with Vlade Divac, Karl Malone, Bill Walton and especially the young Arvydas Sabonis, the Lithuanian who was one of the best players in the world in his Soviet-era prime. "That's who Bogut reminds me of," says Arizona coach Lute Olson, whose Wildcats were the last team to beat Utah, in a 67-62 squeaker in Tucson on Dec. 11. "Unbelievable hands. Catches everything close to him. Runs the court. Has great moves. And he has unbelievable shot-blocking timing. It's hard to get a shot off against him."

NBA scouts, who almost unanimously project Bogut as a top five pick if, as expected, he gives up his final two years of NCAA eligibility, love his court awareness and his toughness. "What I like is his unselfishness," adds Drisdom. "His first priority is not to be the best but to win."

Bogut does have a few personal goals. The most important is to become the first Australian to dominate in the NBA. "It would be good for the kids coming up, and it might bring more interest to the pro league there," says Bogut, who grew up in Melbourne. In his native country basketball is a second-tier sport, ranking somewhere below Australian Rules football, rugby and cricket. But a lot of Aussies are NBA fans, and even those who aren't have their antennae up for a countryman making noise overseas. "All Aussies love a guy going over there and serving it up to the Yanks," says Australian Olympic basketball coach Brian Goorjian, an American who traveled Down Under in 1977 to play pro hoops and never left.

Five Australians have played in the NBA, but only one, Michael Jordan's Chicago Bulls teammate Luc Longley, had a career of any length (11 years). Probably the country's most cherished hoops moment was national team guard Shane Heal's shouting match with Dream Teamer Charles Barkley during an exhibition game before the 1996 Olympics. Given the sheer number of Aussies now developing their games in the States (chart, below), new highlights should soon trump that one. Utah, for example, has another promising 7-foot Aussie, redshirt freshman Luke Nevill of Perth, and it was in the running to sign highly touted Ben Allen, a 6'10", 250-pound post player from Melbourne who committed to Indiana in November.

"A lot of good players are going [to the U.S.] to get an education, get great coaching, play great competition and come back and play in the NBL [Australia's pro league] if they're not good enough to play in the NBA," says Goorjian. "But a lot of Australian players have struggled with the mentality and competitive spirit--the intimidation and the trash talking--in the U.S. Bogut has a different bite to him. He'll fight you for any foot of the court. He reminds me of Drazen Petrovic, who really believed he should be a star. Bogut isn't going into the NBA to sit on the bench."

Not coincidentally, Petrovic, a Croatian who died in a car crash in 1993 just as he was emerging as a star with the New Jersey Nets, is Bogut's hero. In his apartment bedroom, where he has made his only effort to decorate, Bogut has hung a poster of Petrovic and pictures of himself meeting Petrovic's parents in Zagreb in 2003. He often wears the Petrovic number 3 Nets jersey he bought on that trip. But Bogut's identification with Petrovic goes beyond basketball. It includes a shared ethnic heritage: Bogut's parents, Michael and Anne, are Croatians who immigrated to Australia from what was then Yugoslavia as teenagers in the 1970s.

"Petrovic loved the game so much, and that was the difference for him," says Bogut. "He had to play behind Terry Porter and Clyde Drexler in Portland. He knew he was as good as those guys, he just needed a chance to show it. He'd get on a Stairmaster before a game; he'd work out nonstop. People thought he was crazy."

People might have thought Bogut was crazy when he was developing his game in Melbourne. After a few years of tossing a ball at a metal ring bolted to the wall of his dad's carburetor shop, Bogut joined his first club team at age 11. At about the same time he began devouring Australia's weekly NBA telecast and highlights show, taping the latter and watching it every day until a new one aired. He experienced two major growth spurts, at 12 and 16. At the peak of each he played in the post; in between he played on the perimeter, developing his ball handling, passing and shooting skills.

As a result he could play anywhere on the court, but he had a hard time fitting into the clubby world of Australian junior sports. "I had a different surname, and my parents didn't really associate with the other parents at the clubs," says Bogut. "I developed slowly because of my height. As a young teenager I probably wasn't as talented as some other kids, but I knew I had the potential. Yet coaches told me I'd never make it. I'd go home and cry about how much I wanted to make it. I would practice for hours and hours, and I knew other kids weren't doing that."

At 15 Bogut was cut from his under-18 state team. "After that he vowed he would never be last again," recalls Anne. "He said he was going to work twice as hard as everyone else." Making sure he did was Sinisa Markovic, a transplanted Croatian whom Bogut's parents hired as his personal coach. After working out with other promising young players for 11/2 hours in the morning and then attending school, Bogut met Markovic, who played professionally in Europe, for 21/2 hours of training in the afternoon. The drills included running and skipping while wearing ankle weights, and dribbling the length of the court wearing plastic blinders that kept him from seeing the floor. Markovic also forced Bogut to work on weaknesses such as shooting lefthanded. "After half a practice I could barely walk," says Bogut. "It was crazy, but that's where I got my game."

After seven months with Markovic, Bogut saw doors starting to open for him. He was invited to work out with Goorjian's NBL team, the Victoria Titans, in November 2002. Ken Shields, former coach of the Canadian national team, observed one of the practices and was impressed enough to pass along Bogut's name to his friend Majerus, who had developed big men Keith Van Horn and Michael Doleac into NBA players. Majerus offered a scholarship without ever having seen Bogut play.

Following an MVP performance in leading Australia to gold at the junior world championships in July 2003, Bogut landed in Salt Lake City. Majerus was tough on him, as he was on all his best players. "Everyone who goes through the program gets to a point where he really thinks about whether he loves the game enough to stay and play under Majerus, because he is so competitive and so demanding," says Bogut. "People say there was a lot of turmoil between us, but it was nothing like that. I learned more that year than I had my whole life. Not so much fundamentals as strategy."

Majerus resigned in January 2004 because of health problems, and the Utes finished 24-9 under interim coach Kerry Rupp. Bogut, who averaged 12.5 points and 9.9 rebounds, was named the Mountain West freshman of the year. He didn't think he was ready for the NBA, but he entertained offers from European pro teams as he prepared for the Athens Olympics.

As soon as Giacoletti arrived at Utah from Eastern Washington last March, he made bringing Bogut back to school his top priority. In preparing his pitch, Giacoletti consulted a number of NBA scouts to get feedback on what aspects of Bogut's game the Utes staff could help him improve. No one could suggest much besides strength. "Some of the comments were really nitpicky things," says Giacoletti, "like, 'When he gets doubled, he should try to catch the ball in a bent-kneed stance.'" Bogut was more impressed that Giacoletti took a 20-hour flight to Melbourne last summer to see him and meet his parents. "That was quite a gesture," says Bogut. "That showed me that he really cared."

During his five-game Olympic run in Athens, Bogut averaged 14.8 points and 8.8 rebounds and held his own against the world's best post players, including an 11-point, eight-rebound effort against two-time NBA MVP Tim Duncan. He came back to the States a different player. "Last year, it seemed, if he wasn't doing everything the right way, he'd lose confidence," says New Mexico's McKay. "This year confidence has not been an issue."

Opponents haven't rattled Bogut. Nor have opposing fans, who rain abuse on him at every road game, shouting snide comments about his hair and his homeland. Bogut loves the jeering, in part because it exposes Americans' appalling ignorance of geography. "I don't know what they teach people in school here," he says. "Some people think Australia is just red desert with animals running wild everywhere. Others think Croatia is in Australia. I've actually been asked where I learned to speak English so well."

If Bogut makes his mark in the NBA as planned, American fans will learn plenty about Australia. ■

Land of Giants

Although the two best players in Australia's history are a forward (Andrew Gaze) and a guard (Shane Heal), Oz has become a popular spot for Division I coaches to find big men. More than 100 Aussies are playing at U.S. colleges. Here are 10 of the most prominent (statistics through Sunday).

BAYLOR, 6'3", G
Freshman, Horsham

Nation's No. 2 freshman scorer (17.3 ppg) turned down UCLA and Arizona to help Baylor rebuild; leads Bears in scoring and assists while shooting 47.3% from the field, 40.9% from three-point range

Senior, Melbourne

Three-year starter moved from forward to center in October 2003; five weeks later, against Georgia Tech, had 10 points and 8 rebounds to Luke Schenscher's 6 and 1; averaging 7.8 points and 3.7 boards

OREGON, 7 feet, C
Junior, Castlecrag

Much was expected from Ducks' top returning scorer and rebounder (12.5 ppg, 5.0 rpg, 56.2% shooting last season), but after subpar play he was suspended indefinitely on Feb. 9 for "violation of team rules"

CHARLOTTE, 7 feet, C
Sophomore, Sydney

Most heralded recruit in 49ers history is averaging 6.3 points, 4.7 rebounds and 1.8 blocks; declared for '04 NBA draft but withdrew in part because he measured 6' 8 1/2" (without shoes) at Chicago predraft camp

Sophomore, Sydney

Wildcats' second-leading scorer (10.9 ppg) despite coming off bench; averaging 4.3 rebounds, shooting team-best 39.3% from behind arc; joined squad at semester break last season and scored 20 in his second game

ST. MARY'S, 6'10", F
Junior, Melbourne

Versatile big man was WCC player of the month in January; averaging 15.4 points, 6.7 rebounds while shooting 54.6% from the field and 43.4% from beyond arc for surprising Gaels, No. 27 in latest RPI

Sophomore, Burnie

Slowed by injuries as a freshman (ankle surgery, concussion), has emerged this season as Lions' best player; leads the team in scoring (15.6 ppg), rebounding (6.1) and is second in field goal percentage (51.9%)

Junior, Perth

His 45 points in a December 2003 double-OT loss to Charlotte were the Division I single-game high last season; numbers (13.3 ppg, 8.0 rpg) are down this season, but Monarchs are 23--3

NEBRASKA, 6'11", C
Freshman, Sydney

Hulking (265 pounds) big man averages only 19.1 minutes (including four starts) but still leads Cornhuskers in rebounding (6.5 rpg) and is seventh on team in scoring (7.3 ppg)

Senior, Hope Forest

Came of age with 19-point, 12-rebound performance against Oklahoma State in 2004 Final Four; averaging 9.8 points, 7.4 rebounds, 2.2 blocks in Yellow Jackets' guard-oriented offense

"A lot of Australians struggle with intimidation and trash-- talking in the U.S. Bogut has A DIFFERENT BITE," says Goorjian. "He'll fight you for any foot of the court."


Photograph by Greg Nelson


The 7-foot, 245-pound Bogut was the NCAA leader in rebounding (11.9) and double doubles (16) through Sunday.




Bogut was an unexpected star for his homeland in Athens.







Bogut will neednice threads if he is called to the podium at the NBA draft in June as a top pick.