When Winthrop assistant men's basketball coach Brian Kloman settles into a seat at an arena in Argentina in late June, he'll be one of several dozen coaches representing NCAA Division I programs at the FIBA Under-17 Basketball World Cup.
There are 351 schools playing NCAA Division I basketball, and when Winthrop coaches can sidestep roughly 300 of them, that's a recruiting opportunity worth pursuing.
"If we're going to attack a common problem, which means everyone has the problem, we can't attack a common problem with a common approach," said Winthrop athletics director Ken Halpin. "We, by nature, have to look at it differently."
The common problem is finding the best basketball players. Winthrop spends the fifth most money on men's basketball in the Big South Conference and its small budget is a hindrance. But Winthrop is creating one new advantage: overseas recruiting.
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The Eagles have landed six players from beyond American borders since head coach Pat Kelsey arrived six years ago, with four of those coming in the last two years. Ivan Saicic of Serbia arrived in 2013. Recently graduated Australian Xavier Cooks in 2014. Two years later, Latvian Raivis Scerbinskis, who had never heard of Winthrop before Eagles coaches reached out, arrived in Rock Hill. The following year, 2017, two more Australians, Tom Pupavac and Kyle Zunic, joined Cooks. And the Eagles' most recent international recruit, English guard Michael Enumba, signed this spring.
The importance of reaching the NCAA Tournament for a school like Winthrop -- which has no football program and a relatively small athletic footprint -- is immense. Halpin and the Winthrop men's basketball coaching staff are considering all opportunities, especially recruiting international players, to make sure that the Eagles' 2017 trip to the Big Dance was not a one-off during their time at the school.
"There is so much gravity on that week that finding an incredible player is important. And beating out the major schools for an American-raised kid is harder than doing it in Australia," said Halpin.
'The top 1 percent'
All Winthrop basketball coaches have recruiting regions assigned to them. Included in Kloman's? The world.
"The world is a big region," said Kelsey, laughing. "We're not trying to cast a wide net over the entire planet. We've worked circles and relationships and we're kind of focusing in more on the areas that we've been able to establish the strongest relationships."
Kloman is the tip of the spear that is Winthrop's international basketball recruiting set-up. He was Winthrop University's most expensive traveler last fiscal year, his expenses jumping from over $15,000 in 2014-'15 to over $27,000 two years later.
Zoom in to see where Winthrop's Brian Kloman has traveled for recruiting since 2014. Destinations are color-coded by year:
Most of the funds that pay for Kloman's overseas trips comes from guaranteed game money. Those are the fat checks the Eagles get from playing Power 5 competition, teams like Clemson, N.C. State, Illinois or Georgia. That money allows Kloman to make trips where many college coaches never go in search of unearthed talent. It's also led to a montage of incredibly scenic photos on Kloman's Facebook page.
"It's an unbelievable blessing," he said before a recruiting trip to Canada earlier this summer.
"The administration, the coaching staff at Winthrop is one of the main things that make this job very, very special. We're in the top 1 percent, in my opinion, in terms of the vision, the ability to see the forest through the trees, and wanting to do creative things in every aspect of our program. And they give us autonomy to do that and hopefully it pays off."
Kloman's Facebook photos show beautiful scenery, not a lavish travel lifestyle. Besides, Halpin said there is a multi-layered system in place at Winthrop to prevent unauthorized expenses.
"I would reassure you it ain't happening because there are so many checks and balances that so many people have to have eyes on it," he said.
Kloman's most extensive overseas travel happened during the summer of 2017 when he took in the FIBA Under-19 World Cup in Cairo, Egypt, as well as a European tour that included Slovenia, Italy, Germany, England, Czech Republic and Austria. The whirlwind trip helped the Eagles land the 6-foot-5 guard Michael Enumba, from Manchester, England. Kloman expects Enumba, who was the top-ranked prospect in England this year, to help Winthrop's team this coming season.
"The disproportionate expense to find one or two great international athletes is massively worth it, especially if done responsibly," Halpin contends.
Winthrop isn't the first or only school spending money recruiting basketball players overseas. Kloman said he sees coaches from Gonzaga, Georgia Tech, Albany, Davidson, Cal-Fullerton, Montana constantly overseas. West Coast schools tend to be the most successful beyond American borders.
Gonzaga dominates college basketball recruiting Europe, while St. Mary's is the top dog in Australia, according to Kloman. St. Mary's had seven Australians on its 2016-'17 team. Kloman thinks Winthrop is among the top four or five programs recruiting in Australia at the moment, along with New Mexico and Texas Christian.
'You get one, you better take care of him'
Three of Winthrop's four basketball coaches focus almost exclusively on American recruiting, so it's not like the school has forsaken its traditional recruiting areas.
But recruiting overseas does offer one clear advantage:
"When you're in Australia, those kids do not know the difference between Winthrop and Kentucky," Halpin said. "They very much know that they just want to play basketball in the United States. So we have an advantage on the best players because of the relationships that already exist with the coaches on our staff."
Winthrop uses a recruiting service called EuroHopes for leads in Europe, and is also building close links with Basketball Australia's Centre of Excellence, which produced Cooks and Zunic and has a monopoly on the top talent Down Under. But while those groups can provide leads or initial contacts, it's largely up to Winthrop basketball's foot soldier in the field, Kloman, to cultivate and grow relationships with local coaches, parents and, ultimately, recruits.
"He's got a very, very understanding wife," Kelsey joked. "And he loves the adventure and the challenge of opening up new doors and cultivating relationships. Brian is an elite relationship guy."
The most critical piece of recruiting international players is taking care of them once they're signed. While many American players' parents can drop in from time to time, Winthrop coaches call international parents -- who may make one trip to Rock Hill every two years -- with regular updates to assuage concerns or worries.
"Coach Kloman as well as Coach Kelsey are always in touch with us through messenger," Tania and Zoran Zunic wrote in an email. "Kyle had an emergency appendix operation and Coach Kloman went above and beyond expectations in looking after Kyle – we knew he was in good hands and Coach Kloman was really playing the 'Dad' role on our behalf."
If players are well taken care of, they'll let others know. The same is true if they don't have a good experience.
"You get one, you better take care of him," said Kloman. "Because if you don't, you're done."
Australian NBA player Matthew Dellavedova spoke to ESPN in 2016 about St. Mary's' recruiting success in his country. His quote echoed what Winthrop coaches have learned.
"Typically, Australians aren't into the hype and all that other stuff that might be presented in the recruiting process," Dellavedova said. "At the bigger schools, they might show you the facilities or the massive stadiums. But at Saint Mary's, they talk more about how they're going to develop you as a player and as a person. I think that's something that appeals to Australians, and we like the close, tight-knit community where everybody knows each other."
Winthrop landed Cooks thanks in part to a tip from former LSU player Randy Livingston, who was scouting Australia and New Zealand at the time. Cooks averaged seven points per game during a difficult first year of transition. But he doubled his scoring average as a sophomore and blossomed into a star for Winthrop, leading the Eagles to the 2017 NCAA Tournament and winning the Big South's conference player of the year award this past season.
When Kelsey nearly left Winthrop for UMass in March of 2017, Cooks could have transferred almost anywhere in the country. Coaches were calling Winthrop left and right to see if Cooks had received his scholarship release.
But he stayed.
"I loved it," Cooks said. "I'm really big on loyalty and the coaches were so good to me that I couldn't ever let them down."
He didn't, and Winthrop coaches are busily trying to take advantage of the positive first impression they've made Down Under.
Halpin has kicked around the idea of forming a tournament with other American colleges that have Australian players and marketing and televising the event in Australia. Finding the right venue would be important, and also having high-enough RPI teams involved might convince NCAA Tournament contenders like St. Mary's and Texas Christian to get involved.
"We're spit-balling," said Kelsey. "We want to really, really capitalize on the footprint that we have over there right now. Just the fact that we're having those types of discussions sends a message that we want to grow more, have more of a presence there."
Cooks and his Winthrop coaches agree that American colleges recruiting in Australia needed a gateway. The Eagles now have that, thanks in large part to Cooks' success in Rock Hill.
"Xav was your pioneer," said Kloman. "Because we treated him so well, he had a great experience, made friends for life, we're able to go into Australia like a St. Mary's."
Kelsey's first recruiting trip to Australia in 2014 began with a visit to a car rental establishment. Only one vehicle was left on the lot, a Hummer. In hindsight, it was a smart option for Kelsey, who said he nearly got into a dozen accidents in the next 30 minutes while he adjusted to driving on the left side of the road.
Kelsey made it to his destination for that first Australian trip, Cooks' official home visit. Winthrop's coach landed the unusual Aussie talent and he and his staff took care of him for the next four years, a fact appreciated by the player and his parents.
"I was so comfortable with the coaches," said Cooks. "I still call Kelsey, I still call Kloman. It's bigger than basketball and I really enjoyed my time with them."
Cooks was the first home run in a gradually increasing focus on international recruiting. There never was a meeting where Kelsey pounded his first on the table and said Winthrop basketball was going international.
"It kind of evolved," he said.
During Cooks' recruitment, Kelsey promised to bring Winthrop's team to Australia so Cooks could play in his home country.
"And I was like, 'yeah, yeah, I've heard it all before,'" said Cooks. "And then when he actually did it... it was a great experience."
Winthrop toured Australia in the summer of 2017, playing several school and professional teams and further expanding its brand in the country. The tour showed Winthrop was serious in its efforts to make connections and relationships in the country, despite the distance. While Cooks began his Winthrop farewell tour in front of friends and family, Zunic and Pupavac made their debuts for the school in a very unique way.
"How cool was that for those guys, the first time they put on a Winthrop uniform is in their home country," said Kelsey. "But there is no question, it just heightens our presence, the awareness people have for our basketball brand in that country. If you're really serious about recruiting that country you better show your presence. And we've shown that."