With his 7-foot stature and Serbian accent, Novak Topalovic is a standout presence on the Bengal men’s basketball team not just because of his height, but also because of his personality.
“Novak’s maturity level is about on the eleven-year-old level, so he keeps us pretty happy, pretty loose,” head coach Bill Evans joked.
The redshirt sophomore started at Idaho State in 2014 after attending Santa Margarita Catholic High School in California.
He moved to the United States his junior year of high school, leaving his family behind in his hometown of Niš, Serbia.
In hindsight, the transition was difficult, but it proved worthwhile, Topalovic said.
“You get thrown inside of the whole circle, and you don’t think about it at the time,” he said. “Looking back, it wasn’t that easy, but it’s what I wanted.”
Since his arrival in Idaho, Topalovic has proved himself to be a valuable member of the Bengal team.
After redshirting the 2014-2015 season, he played all 31 games coming off the bench last season.
This season, Topalovic has started every game at center, hauling in a career-high 16 rebounds in a road game at Utah Valley on Nov. 16 and scoring a career-high 18 against North Dakota Jan. 18.
“He’s turned himself into a pretty confident player,” Evans said. “He’s made great strides. He’s a good person. He has bad manners, but he’s a good person. He talks when I talk. Good kid, I love him though.”
Topalovic began his basketball career in kindergarten and hopes to pursue the sport after he’s finished college.
Basketball is popular in Serbia—the Serbian team played against the U.S. for the gold medal in last year’s Olympics—and Topalovic had opportunities to continue playing basketball there, but said he wanted to find a change of scenery in the states.
The new language and culture, down to simple everyday activities, made for a difficult adjustment at first.
Being without his family was hard, but he stayed busy with basketball, homework, hanging out with his host family and learning English.
With the Santa Margarita team, he made it to the California State Semifinals in 2014.
While playing in California, he made contact with ISU recruiters and made an official visit to campus.
Meeting with coaches, he realized the school and team were a good choice for him.
“It felt good,” Topalovic said. “I spoke to Evans and other coaches, and I think it was a right fit. Predominantly it’s because of coaches and coaching.”
This year’s team features a handful of international players, including Geno Luzcando from Santiago, Chile, and Balint Moscan from Budapest, Hungary.
“My experience with international kids has been they’re really good students. They really want to get a degree,” Evans said. “They’re excited to be at Idaho State. They just want an opportunity.”
Topalovic is pursuing a psychology degree and hopes to go into law enforcement, preferably the FBI.
His 2014-2015 redshirt gives him another two full seasons and plenty of time to improve, said Evans.
“Novak has really worked hard, and he’s really become a pretty good player,” he said. “I think he has brighter days ahead of him.”