- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 22, 2005

BALTIMORE — Hassan Fofana stands 6-foot-10 and weighs 270 pounds, but he still is a hard guy to locate.

Fofana, once a promising recruit at Maryland, left big-time college basketball for the Division I hoops outpost of Loyola College in Baltimore, a school he heard of only because former Terrapins assistant Jimmy Patsos is coaching the program.

The slimmed-down center — he has lost some 20 pounds — will return to the limelight tomorrow night, though just briefly, when he makes his debut for the Greyhounds in an ACC arena at Virginia.

That will be the only thing Fofana still has in common with his old Top 25 program, which regularly packs large arenas and plays on national television.

Loyola struggles to fill its 3,000-seat gym, rarely appears on television and plays in the little-known Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference.

“Things happen in life where you need a fresh start,” said Fofana, who during high school left the West African nation of Togo to come to the United States. “I didn’t grow up learning basketball. I need a place where I can learn and make some mistakes and be allowed to make mistakes.”

Fofana is one of several big men who will be unwrapped by local mid-majors programs this holiday season. Paulius Joneliunas, a 6-foot-11 Lithuanian who began his college career at South Carolina, will become the centerpiece for American starting tomorrow at Maryland.

Regis Koundjia, a one-time top-25 recruit originally pursued by the likes of North Carolina and Duke, is expected to be an immediate force for 13th-ranked George Washington.

A 6-8 native of the Central African Republic, Koundjia plays his first game for the Colonials on Dec. 30 at No. 21 N.C. State.

“He is as talented a guy as I have ever been around,” said GW coach Karl Hobbs, who coached eventual NBA stars Ray Allen, Richard Hamilton and Caron Butler as an assistant at Connecticut. “This guy is going to play in the NBA.”

The trio of transfers have three things in common: They left their home countries during high school to come to the United States, they once never would have considered playing for their new schools and they transferred down to get more playing time to improve their chances of playing professionally.

Switching schools is nothing new in the fast-moving world of college basketball. However, it is rare for big men with strong potential — all three were top-100 recruits coming into college — to switch. It has opened a secondary market for mid-majors to land talent that used to be beyond their reach.

“This is a great way for a smaller school like us to get someone who would have never considered us,” AU coach Jeff Jones said. “You can be a big fish in a small pond. Many kids make the mistake of going [to] too high [a college basketball level] out of high school. It is much better to play at a lower level than sitting on your butt at a big-time program.”

Fofana’s NBA assist

Fofana was not serious about Loyola when he obtained his release from Maryland last December. He was interested in Georgetown and met with coach John Thompson III and his father, Hall of Fame coach John Thompson. He considered Big East newcomer South Florida and the Atlantic 10’s La Salle.

Two events pointed Fofana to Loyola. First, 7-foot-2 freshman Roy Hibbert started his ascent at Georgetown, giving the Hoyas depth on the front line.

“I didn’t want to put myself in the same situation I just left,” Fofana said.

Second, Fofana used a “friend of a friend” to get in contact with Indiana Pacers coach Rick Carlisle and ask him for advice.

“He said, ‘It’s not about going to a big-time school. If you can play, professional scouts will find you. That is not your job. Your job is to go out there on the court and perform,’ ” Fofana said. “That is somebody in the system. If he says that …”

Patsos says he was so shocked he nearly drove off the road when Fofana called him to say he was coming to Loyola. The Loyola coach recruited him to Maryland from Holy Name High School in Massachusetts and Hargrave Military Academy in Virginia but considered himself more an advisor than a recruiter when Fofana left College Park.

“You’re not going to find many guys like that in our league,” the Greyhounds’ second-year coach said. “We wouldn’t recruit a guy like that the first time because we would have no chance. He can come here and make some mistakes. We were 1-27 two years ago. We are willing to take someone and let him grow.”

Fofana will get plenty of minutes as the team’s lone legitimate center. He felt comfortable with Patsos and with being reunited with Andre Collins, a point guard who also transferred from Maryland.

Loyola has become a hotbed for major-college transfers: Ex-Providence guard Gerald Brown and former Notre Dame power forward Omari Israel (Good Counsel High School) become eligible next season.

Fofana spoke only his native French when he arrived in Massachusetts. He has not been to his impoverished homeland in almost five years. Fofana, the seventh of 10 children, stays in touch through regular phone conversations with his mother, Miriam, and his father, Foumghe.

“Money is an issue,” said Fofana, an international business major who plans to use pro basketball to support his family. “I want to go back there when I am ready to help. I don’t want to show up at my house empty-handed. I promised myself the next time I go back I will have something in my hand.”

Foggy Bottom’s best?

Hobbs wanted Koundjia so much he guaranteed he would stay as coach at George Washington if the versatile forward joined the Colonials.

Koundjia, a transfer from LSU, visited Georgetown, Virginia Tech and Wake Forest before making a surprising decision to attend school in Foggy Bottom.

“Part of the reason I redid my contract during the season last year was I really wanted to coach him,” said Hobbs, a rising star in the coaching ranks. “I went to the school and said, ‘People are telling Regis if you go to GW, Coach Hobbs won’t be there.’ I promised him I would be here. I want to coach this kid in the worst way.”

Hobbs compared him to future NBA players he helped coach at Connecticut.

“I think he is one of those chance-of-a-lifetime players for a young coach,” Hobbs said. “I just haven’t been around a guy like him. He is different than Ray Allen. He is different from Donyell Marshall. He is different from Richard Hamilton. He is different from Caron Butler. But yet he is a little bit of a combination of all of them.

“He can block shots like Donyell. He can shoot the 3, not as well as Ray or Rip, but pretty well. He can really get to the basket off the dribble like Richard Hamilton.”

Koundjia arrived in the United States on Jan. 14, 2001, from the Central African Republic. The wiry forward starred at Laurinburg (N.C.) Institute and wanted to go to North Carolina. He instead committed early to LSU — a decision he blames on bad advice he received from a family member.

He started 20 games as a freshman and likely would still be in Baton Rouge if his playing time was not cut as a sophomore.

“My sophomore year, [LSU coach John Brady] said I was going to play 28 minutes,” Koundjia said. “After four games, I was playing 15 minutes, 10 minutes. I just said, ‘No, I can’t play like that.’ ”

Like Fofana, Koundjia has a higher mission with his basketball career. Koundjia, the youngest of nine children, hopes to improve his family’s life in Africa.

“It is more than just a game,” he said. “I have to take care of my mom, and I have to do whatever I can to take care of my people.”

He grew up in the country’s capital city of Bangui, which was filled with violence related to coups against the government.

“People were shooting guns everywhere,” he said. “We didn’t go to school for two or three years.”

His father, Fidele, worked for the government before he mysteriously died in 1991. Regis believes it was an assassination.

“He went out with his friends, and somebody put something in his drink,” he said. “When he came home, he was sick for two weeks and passed away.”

AU’s second chance

Jones recruited Joneliunas at Roanoke (Va.) Catholic High School, but he soon knew it would be a fruitless effort. Word quickly got out that there was a big European player in Roanoke who could pass, was athletic and had huge potential.

“Because of the lack of quality big men, some programs will go after someone who is big but needs to develop,” said Jones, who recommended him to South Carolina coach Dave Odom, whose son Ryan was an AU assistant at the time.

Dave Odom had success with Lithuanians before, including Darius Songaila at Wake Forest. The Gamecocks coach returned Jones’ favor once he realized Joneliunas was not going to play much.

“[Odom] said it would be a good idea to go to American,” said Joneliunas, a junior. “He said you shouldn’t look anywhere else.”

Joneliunas immediately felt comfortable at AU, which has established a pipeline with Lithuania and has two other players from that country, Arvydas Eitutavicius and Linus Lekavicius, on its roster.

Jones is cautious not to expect too much too soon out of the first true center he has had in his six seasons in the District.

“We are trying to get him to be more aggressive when he gets the ball around the basket,” Jones said. “He’s got all the tools to be successful. However, it takes time.”

Leaving the limelight

Fofana recently sat in cozy Reitz Arena before a backdrop of foldaway stands. He no longer plays at state-of-the-art Comcast Center. The bright lights, media and public attention seem like long ago.

He enjoyed his time in the spotlight but does not yearn to be back. He rather would be a large part of something smaller, and he sees fame as secondary in the big picture.

“It doesn’t matter what conference you are in or how many people you play in front of,” Fofana said. “It’s not about the publicity. Once the ball goes up, it’s still basketball. I just want to play.”

It’s a common thread for the big men who soon will start their second college careers. GW, despite its national ranking, has averaged less than 3,000 fans for its six home games. American often plays in a near-empty Bender Arena.

“It’s nice to have sold-out arenas, but it’s not the most important thing” Joneliunas said. “Playing time is the most important thing.”

And the talented transfers will find plenty of that in their downsized college homes.

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