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The NCAA Tournament's Growing International Reach

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LOS ANGELES — March Madness captivates the United States every spring, existing as a perfect slice of athletic Americana. In a nation that prides itself on its identity as a cultural melting pot, the ever-expanding global reach of basketball fits in the NCAA Tournament’s wholly American identity.

Basketball’s globalization showed proudly at the West Regional in Staples Center, where five continents have representation among the four teams.

The star of Thursday’s Sweet 16 action pitting Michigan against Texas A&M and Gonzaga vs. Florida State was UM Moritz Wagner, a 6-foot-11 forward who showed off game reminiscent of German countryman Dirk Nowitzki.

With a throng of media surrounding Wagner, the magnitude of a win putting Michigan one game away from the Final Four was clear. He wasn’t in Berlin’s Rosa-Luxemburg-Gymnasium School anymore.

“You know about [the significance of the NCAA Tournament] in basketball circles,” Wagner said. “But it isn’t covered in the news or anything.”

This year's NCAA Tournament, and the West Regional specifically, warranted greater international interest, with almost all corners of the globe in play.

North America is here, of course — though the surge in Canadian influence on the game is evident with Florida State redshirt freshman Mfiondu Kabengele, one of 103 Northern imports currently on Div. I rosters, according to RealGM.com

Seminoles teammate Braian Angola represents South America, coming from Villanueva, Colombia. Florida State also features Ike Obiagu of Nigeria; Christ Koumadje of Chad; and Anthony Polite from Switzerland.

Florida State advanced to its first Elite Eight in 25 years with a 75-60 win over Gonzaga that demonstrated the very best of this Seminoles team. And, according to Obiagu, Florida State owes some of its best qualities to its uniquely international look.

"We've had to learn to communicate with one another really well, even in tough situations," Obiagu said. "Everything is not always going to go your way, so you need to be able to communicate. And that's been helpful."

For the Seminoles, basketball itself becomes a great unifier; a means of communicating despite any cultural or language barriers. And there are language barriers.

"I'm still working on English," said Florida State head coach Leonard Hamilton. "And I'm still struggling with that at times."

While that may be the case, Florida State's global makeup is very much by design. Hamilton said competing in the NCAA in general and the "best basketball conference ever assembled" specifically, the ACC, requires "look[ing] under a lot of rocks and knock[ing] on a lot of doors."

That means knocking on doors in new locations.

African and European nations have historically been the primary importers of basketball talent to America, sending over luminaries like Hakeem Olajuwon (University of Houston) and Kiki VanDeWeghe (UCLA). New countries on those continents are burgeoning hotbeds for the sport, like France — home to two of Gonzaga’s current members, Killian Tillie and Joel Ayayi — and Denmark, home to Zags center Jacob Larsen.

Gonzaga’s Spokane, Washington, campus is now also home to a first-of-his-kind transplant: Rui Hachimura.

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Last season, Hachimura became the first Japanese-born player in the NCAA Tournament. His presence on the Zags national runner-up roster was a cool factoid, though only played a behind-the-scenes role in their run to Glendale.

This season, Hachimura became a leader for a Gonzaga team that reached the Sweet 16 for the fourth consecutive season. For the year, he averaged nearly 21 minutes to go along with 11.6 points and 4.7 rebounds per game.

Hachimura, whose father was born in the African nation of Benin, was excellent in Thursday’s loss to Florida State. He scored a team-high 16 points and fell just shy of a double-double with nine rebounds.

March Madness may not garner the same kind of attention overseas as stateside, but Hachimura’s historic story has been covered all season in Japan, with reporters embedded alongside the Zags. He addressed reporters in both English and Japanese following the game, bringing a some of America's grandest basketball event across the Pacific.

"We don't really know about stuff like the NCAA, March Madness [in Japan]," Hachimura said. "But I think now it's getting more popular because I play here and all the media."

Hachimura added that having his own role in exposing the game more to Japan is "definitely" special to him.

Australia may not have any players at the West Regional, but Gonzaga’s West Coast Conference rival Saint Mary’s has built a prosperous pipeline Down Under that produced such noteworthy Gaels as Patty Mills, Matthew Dellavedova, and 2017-18 standouts Jock Landale and Emmett Naar.

All corners of the world are making their mark on college basketball stateside nowadays. Antarctica only lacked an NCAA prospect because penguins can’t shoot the 3-pointer.

Don’t expect this trend of international players taking America’s March pastime global to slow, either. A study published at Rukkus Blog in 2017 estimated 11 percent of Div. I college basketball players came from outside of the United States. International numbers across the NCAA have grown exponentially in the past 20 years.

And as basketball's growth continues, new generations of young players from all over the world will have their own, unique stories that led them to March Madness; stories like Wagner's.

Some symbolism can be gleaned in the torrential downpour outside the Staples Center on Thursday, because Wagner owes rainfall to his raining 3-pointers.

“I played soccer — I love soccer,” he said. “My mom hated being outside in the rain. So, she forced me to play a gym sport. And I was very tall, so it was kind of easier for me."

The next Moritz Wagner may be taking a break from a rain-soaked soccer field somewhere in Germany. The next Rui Hachimura might be seeing American college basketball for the very first time, thanks to the Gonzaga forward.

Athletic Americana has a growing generation of goodwill ambassadors.

— Written by Kyle Kensing, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a sportswriter in Southern California. Kensing is publisher of TheOpenMan.com. Follow him on Twitter @kensing45.

(Top photo courtesy of Getty Images)