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In new push for European basketball prospects, UND thinks it's finding the right matches

UND men's basketball coach Brian Jones talks about the Fighting Hawks historic victory winning the Big Sky tournament and advancing to the NCAA tournament in 2017. Photo by Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald

On his way to Latvia on Tuesday afternoon, UND men's basketball coach Brian Jones marveled over technology like Skype and Viber that aid in long-distance communication.

"It's amazing how small the world is now with these phones," said Jones, who has added three European recruits this offseason. "I'm so impressed with their English. The good thing is that basketball is basketball—it's the same language."

Communicating across the globe and navigating language barriers are new territories for Jones, who enters his 13th season as head coach of the Fighting Hawks.

During most of his tenure, Jones and his staff primarily recruited the Upper Midwest, especially Minnesota and Iowa.

This offseason, however, UND has gone overseas. The Hawks have announced the signings of Davids Atelbauers of Latvia, Filip Rebraca of Serbia and Marko Coudreau of France.

"It's something I've been interested in for quite some time," Jones said. "I feel the basketball over there is so good and our style of play has something to do with that, as well. We play more of a European style of basketball."

Jones has found Europe has talent, especially in a valuable commodity—"the guys who are 6-foot-8 and 6-foot-9 who can dribble, pass and shoot," he said.

In addition to the three new European athletes, Jones hired a new assistant coach from Serbia—Dani Mihailovic.

"The new assistant opened up some more doors, which was great," Jones said. "And these kids, unlike American kids, aren't as enamored by the level. They want to get a good degree and fit in to their style of play. Their ultimate goal is to go back to their home countries and play professionally."

Throw into the mix the addition of Jal Bijiek, a rookie who spurned high-major Division I offers to play at UND, and Jones is excited about his newcomers.

Atelbauers, a 6-foot-1 guard, can handle the point or play off the ball. Jones describes his style as scrappy.

A native of Sombor, Serbia, Rebraca spent this past season at Williston Northampton School in Easthampton, Mass. The 6-foot-9 center is the son of Zeljko Rebraca, who played for three teams in the NBA (Detroit Pistons, Atlanta Hawks, Los Angeles Clippers) from 2001-06.

Originally from Marseille, France, the 6-foot-9 Coudreau appeared in 25 international games for his country, including playing for France's Under 16 National squad in the 2016 European Championship.

"They're all talented enough and they're all different," Jones said. "With the openings we had, we couldn't have asked for a better recruiting class. It's a really talented group, but they're going to be thrown into the fire."

In recruiting Europe, Jones has found the recruits playing on national teams face a different challenge than Americans on the AAU circuit.

"The level of basketball is so high," Jones said. "I know they know how to play. They're playing against elite players so you get a better feel for who they are. They're going to be stretched and challenged."

Jones said his current Latvia trip is two-fold. He wants to support his current commitments, as well as seek out more.

Atelbauers is from Latvia, so Jones plans to do an in-home visit. Coudreau is also in Latvia this week playing in international competition as part of a French national team.

In looking to the future, Jones has two scholarships available for 2019, when the team loses scholarship seniors Cortez Seales and Conner Avants.

"We want to continue to build our network over there, build a product and a brand," Jones said. "We can go over there and they can put a face to a name. A lot of times that helps alleviate any barriers that may be there in terms of concerns coming to the United States.

"If these kids were Americans, they'd be over-recruited. We think these guys could have dynamic careers at North Dakota."

According to VerbalCommits.com, a respected men's basketball recruiting website, UND has scholarship offers out to two more international players—6-foot-9 Croatian Luka Barisic of Highland Community College (Ill.) and 6-foot-6 Tim Adetukasi, a native of the United Kingdom who plays at Greenwood Christian Academy (Ind.).

European recruiting is mostly new to UND but certainly not new ground around Division I mid-major basketball.

Most Big Sky Conference men's basketball programs have at least two international players, while the Summit League programs vary in international recruiting interest.

North Dakota State and South Dakota State haven't recruited internationally much recently, while South Dakota, Denver, Oral Roberts and Western Illinois each have more than one foreign player on the roster.

Tom Miller

Miller has been with the Grand Forks Herald sports department since 2004. He's also a Grand Forks native and UND graduate. 

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