The Idaho State women’s basketball team has seen an increase in international players the last three season. This is due in part to associate head coach Ryan Johnson and the connections he has built overseas that date far beyond his time at ISU.
The Bengals have six international players on the roster, the most out of any Big Sky team. The next closest teams are Portland State and Idaho, which both have four.
Johnson came over from Northern Colorado after former Bears head coach Jaime White left for a head coaching job at Fresno State, leaving Johnson in search of work.
ISU head coach Seton Sobolewski hired Johnson going into the 2014-15 season, calling it a no-brainer.
“We have played against him forever,” Sobolewski said. “Even before that when he was an assistant at Utah State and I was an assistant at UC Riverside we’d hang out. It’s a smaller network than you’d think.”
Since Johnson’s arrival, five players from four different countries have signed to play basketball for ISU thanks to connections which he first started building in Australia and New Zealand.
One player Johnson recruited from the New Zealand is Brooke Blair, who is from Auckland.
“I’ve always wanted to come to the States and play basketball,” Blair said. “I love basketball and in New Zealand basketball isn’t very big. You’re playing higher competition here.”
The opportunities that playing collegiate basketball in the United State bring for players such as Blair, who have aspirations of playing for New Zealand in the Olympics, are something difficult to pass up, even if it means moving 10,000 miles away from home.
“With how big collegiate sports are here, it’s a big draw,” Johnson said. “In some of these other countries, you don’t have collegiate sports. If you do it’s a club. Like intramural sports.”
Another bonus is the coaching players receive while in the United States, which benefits both the player and their home country, as they will build on and improve their game.
“They want to know what the program is like, what the school is like and if we are going to take care of their players,” Johnson said of his connections. “They want to know if they will be learning the types of things that will be beneficial to them when they go back.”
But convincing 17 and 18 year-olds to move across an ocean and away from their parents can sometimes be a challenge. Johnson combats this through building relationships with both the players and their families.
“When you are recruiting internationally I would probably say it is the most important thing,” Johnson said. “It’s the number one thing that you develop a good relationship with not only the player, but the family. They know when their daughter is coming over, they will be in a good situation.”
For Blair, the relationship started in 2012 where Johnson met her at a Federation of International Basketball Associations (FIBA) tournament in New Zealand with Johnson still on staff at Northern Colorado.
Although playing collegiate basketball in the United States presented an opportunity to receive elite coaching on a consistent basis while playing against a high level of competition, the idea of moving to another country was daunting.
“I think one thing that is hard for international players when you first are talking to them is they don’t have this experience and knowledge of what is going on in the recruiting process,” Johnson said.
“Part of building a relationship with them is explaining to them what is going on and the process. It’s more involved than a player from the States.”
Johnson will watch games online to find players and make and receive calls from coaches and other connections he has formed, informing him about potential players and asking if they have any players that fill a need on his team.
“Sometimes I am able to go see them with their school team,” Johnson said. “But with most international students, you aren’t going to see them in a high school setting very often. It’s much more club-based and that is true for every country in the world except for us.”
Blair’s plan was to attend Northern Colorado after attending junior college in northeastern Colorado.
Once Johnson accepted the job at ISU, Blair followed the coach she had spent three years building a relationship with.
“He had a good relationship with my family as well,” Blair said. “We knew he was a good guys and a good coach. I knew I would be able to get better.”
Sobolewski and Johnson target international students because there is less competition for similar talent compared to players in the United States, who are sometimes “over-recruited.”
“Everybody thinks there’s that kid from a small town in Montana or Idaho that nobody knows about,” Sobolewski said. “That never happens. Every really good player in the country has already been seen.”
Johnson’s connections allow ISU to tap into another pool of recruits that can enhance the team’s diversity and skill level.
“As you look across the world, the level of international basketball on the women’s side is coming up to the level that it is in the States,” Johnson said.
Johnson was able to slowly expand his connections out to Spain and Croatia.
Johnson said that the Bengals will welcome another international player next season while two of Johnson’s former players are now coaching in Germany, allowing another gateway to open.
“I’ll be able to develop contacts there,” Johnson said. “Who knows, maybe down the line, we’ll have a German.”
Connections in these countries present a whole new challenge Johnson must deal with in convincing recruits to come to the United State.
In addition to moving across the world, some of these players have to be willing to learn English.
“That whole part of the process is not an overnight thing,” Johnson said. “Especially internationally wise.”