- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 3, 2004

The red, white and blue jerseys read American, but the names on the back are Petrauskas, Cresnik, Lekavicius and Eitutavicius.

The American University basketball team is near the top of the Patriot League, close enough that the Eastern European pipeline it tapped could deliver the American basketball dream — an NCAA tournament bid — for the first time. What are a few trans-Atlantic flights if it brings March Madness to AU?

“We started with an idea that we might want to recruit internationally,” AU coach Jeff Jones said. “But it kind of took on a life on its own.”

And how.

First there is Slovenian Matej Cresnik, a sharpshooting 6-foot-8 junior and sound big man. Then there are a trio of Lithuanians — Raimondas Petrauskas, Linas Lekavicius and Arvydas Eitutavicius.

And the Eastern Europeans aren’t the only basketball imports at AU. Cameroon forward Patrick Opkwae and Canadian Ryan Graham make the Eagles a roundball version of the United Nations.

“When you get mad, you see a lot of different languages coming out of practices and games,” Puerto Rican point guard Andres Rodriguez said. “Matej speaking Slovenian. The other ones speaking Lithuanian. I am speaking Spanish. Ryan and Pat are speaking French. It’s funny.”

The Eagles do have their share of American players, including leading rebounder Jernavis Draughn and freshman Andre Ingram. However, the international makeup is by design. Jones knew he couldn’t recruit against the ACC and Big East for blue-chip players and saw AU as a perfect fit for foreign players. The school has an ethnically diverse student body and is located in one of the country’s most diverse cities.

“This is just looking to increase the pool of perspective student-athletes and also see what fits us as a university,” said Jones, the former Virginia coach who is in his fourth season at AU. “These guys aren’t afraid of hard work. They aren’t spoiled. They don’t have these big expectations. They are happy to be getting an education and playing basketball, which they cannot do in their country at the same time. They are excellent students, and obviously they have done well in basketball.”

The Eagles (11-10, 5-2 Patriot League) have won eight of their last 11 as Petrauskas, in his second season of basketball in the United States, has become a physical force with a shooter’s touch. The 6-7 junior has been AU’s most consistent player lately. He leads the team with 13 blocked shots and recorded a career-high 24 points in Sunday’s win over Army.

Cresnik is a fluid big man who has hit 26 of 52 3-pointers. Freshman Lekavicius is a composed backup point guard, and Eitutavicius is a freshman who joined the team after the first semester.

Cresnik and Petrauskas came straight to AU from overseas, while the others came to the United States for high school before enrolling at AU.

The beginning of AU’s international influence can be traced to South Carolina coach Dave Odom, who coached Lithuanian star Darius Songaila at Wake Forest. Songaila’s success in the ACC prompted Odom’s son Ryan, an assistant at AU from 2000 to 2003 before leaving for a similar position at Virginia Tech, to scout Lithuanian players. When Ryan Odom convinced Ricardas Patiejunas to come to AU, that opened the AU-Lithuania pipeline.

Jones never saw Patiejunas before he arrived on campus but took the advice of basketball people abroad. As Odom said, “You have to trust a lot more guys overseas because you can’t go over on a Tuesday night and see a guy play.”

When it came to Cresnik, Jones didn’t have to go so much on blind faith. The coach saw tape of the Slovenian star and was so impressed he made a trip overseas intent on bringing the big man to AU.

“We can’t afford — literally — to spend money and go on a wild goose chase,” Jones said of his school’s modest budget. “He was just very fundamentally sound and really knows the game. He’s 6-8, 6-9 with those kind of fundamentals. Finding good big men that are advanced like that, you really don’t get too much of a chance over here to get a player like that. There is such a premium on big guys.”

Cresnik, 24, didn’t start playing basketball until he was 17 but was a Slovenian junior national tennis champion. He was at a special school for athletes when two of his roommates who were on the basketball team got him interested in the game. One of those roommates was Bostjan Nachbar, a first-round pick by the Houston Rockets in 2002.

Cresnik, who played on the Slovenian national team in the European championships against NBA players Tony Parker (France) and Pau Gasol (Spain), had designs on playing professionally in Europe before a slipped disc in his back forced him to consider other options.

“That’s really when I started thinking about going to college in the States,” said Cresnik, who speaks six languages. “Here it is easier to do sports and school. I knew back home I wouldn’t be able to do both. That’s why my parents really encouraged me to come over. The coach of my club team had connections to Coach Odom, and Coach Jones came over to see me play.”

Like Cresnik, Petrauskas picked up the game in his late teens. The 24-year old started playing after a growth spurt at 18 and was encouraged by friends and his mother, who played when she was younger. He has been encouraged by his teammates since he arrived at AU.

“Basketball is most popular in Lithuania,” said Petrauskas, who followed the career of Lithuanian Arvydas Sabonis in the NBA. “I didn’t speak any English at all. When I came here, Rick [Patiejunas] was in his second year, and he helped me. Matej, who is from Slovenia, helped me with homework and studying.”

Lekavicius and Eitutavicius came to U.S. high schools on the recommendation of college coaches, and the two followed their countrymen’s footsteps to Washington.

While Cresnik has a typical European finesse game, Petrauskas shows aggressive and physical play — something atypical of Europeans. The coaches are trying get him to play less aggressively to cut down on his fouls.

All of AU’s European players are fundamentally sound — they shoot and handle the ball well and play solid defense — which makes a pass-first point guard’s job easier.

“It’s really easy because they are all shooters,” said Rodriguez, who is averaging 7.6 assists. “They don’t think like Americans that if you are tall you go to the post and that’s it. Over there, if you are tall or small, you get a ball and you shoot. That’s good for us because we can keep the floor spread. Raimos can shoot from 17 feet. Matej is our best shooter. They are big guys, but they can come out and shoot.”

The transition off the court hasn’t been as easy, even with a built-in support system. Learning to speak English and adjusting to life in a new country is a challenge. Petrauskas calls home about twice a month and regularly e-mails his family and friends. The Lithuanians often visit their embassy and go to Lithuanian communities where they can get a home-cooked meal.

Obviously, the players still embrace their roots, but they have adopted the dream of American college basketball players. They understand March Madness and are eager to experience that part of Americana.

“That’s why I came here — to be part of a winning team and go to the NCAA tournament,” Cresnik said. “That’s what it is all about.”

Whether your name is Mike or Matej.

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