Why Tennessee hoops will develop Canadian connection

The fact that two basketball players from Canada are making official visits to Tennessee this weekend is no coincidence. Rob Lanier, one of new coach Rick Barnes’ assistants, has ties north of the border, evidenced by the success Lanier and Barnes had luring Canadian players to their previous employer, Texas.

No, Kyle Alexander and Ray Kasongo, the Vols’ weekend visitors, aren’t to be mistaken, talent-wise, for former Longhorns Tristan Thompson, Myck Kabongo or Corey Joseph, not yet anyway. But both are skilled. And their presence begs a question. Why hasn’t Tennessee ever consistently gotten involved with international players?

Think about it, and it makes sense. Tennessee is a good, not great producer of high school talent, even given the fact Memphis is one of the nation’s hoops hotbeds. But how many players have the Vols signed from the Memphis area in the last 20 years? There’s Tony Harris. Dane Bradshaw. Jarnell Stokes. And that’s about it. Proximity has always been an issue as it relates to the state university, located in Knoxville, recruiting in Memphis. Canada isn’t that much farther away, and I’ve always wondered why Tennessee hasn’t tried to recruit there.

Can Tennessee be more successful recruiting Canada than it can Memphis? Barnes and his staff will do their best to sign Memphis players; they’re duty bound to try. But they’re going to take full advantage of their assets, and one of those is Canada.

It makes perfect sense. In an age where more and more international players are playing Division I basketball—and teams like Gonzaga, which featured players from Canada, Poland and Lithuania in its primary rotation, are winning big—why shouldn’t Tennessee seek help outside the U.S.?

LSU is certainly doing it. Ever wonder why players from Australia and New Zealand are suddenly turning up in Baton Rouge? It’s because of assistant head coach David Patrick, a native of the Bahamas who played pro basketball in Australia, where he obviously made a lot of friends. When Patrick began coaching college basketball, the schools where he worked became enclaves for players from down under—first Nicholls State, then Saint Mary’s, and now LSU. That’s why Ben Simmons, the No. 1 prospect in the high school class of 2015, will play for the Tigers next year.

Why haven’t Tennessee coaches wanted to get in on some of that action? There are only so many players to go around in the 14-school Southeastern Conference region. Recruiting there can be cutthroat, if you know what I mean. Why not, if a coach wanted to do things the right way, develop ties to a particular country, or continent? Some very good players in Australia don’t know the difference between Nicholls State and LSU. The cost of a scholarship, a good education and the chance to hone their skills in the best basketball-playing nation in the world are all it takes to get them here.

This Canadian connection could turn out to be lucrative for Tennessee now that Barnes and his trusted aide Lanier are on the scene. Consider that in 2014, 27 Canadians played for teams that competed in the NCAA Tournament. One of those was Andrew Wiggins of Kansas, who became the No. 1 pick in the NBA Draft. Another was Syracuse point guard Tyler Ennis, who went No. 18 in the first round.

In the 2015 NCAAs, 28 Canadians took part. None with the star power of Wiggins, but plenty of good ones, including Kevin Pangos of Gonzaga, Kenny Cherry of Baylor and Naz Long of Iowa State.

And here’s one you might never have guessed: Kentucky forward Trey Lyles was born in Saskatoon.

Other schools that have thrived on international players made their way to the NCAA Tournament in 2015. New Mexico State had four Canadians on its roster. Valparaiso, which has had a long history of recruiting internationally, relied heavily on freshman Tevonn Walker (10.2 ppg). Oregon’s third-leading scorer was Dilon Brooks, who hails from Ontario and averaged 11.5 points this season.

All this brings us around to Tennessee. Barnes and his staff want to build a program, not a team. So there’s been no rush to judgment since Barnes took over in late March, no mad scramble to sign players just to fill slots. That didn’t work for Cuonzo Martin after he took over from Bruce Pearl. Donnie Tyndall and his staff did a great job rebuilding a depleted roster last spring, but they weren’t involved with players the likes of Alexander or Kasongo, both of whom were recruited by Barnes and his staff at Texas.

Alexander is a plus six, which means his wingspan (7-foot-4) exceeds his height by six inches. He’s an athletic presence who consistently outran the guards on his Orangeville Prep team in Ontario. He’s a big-time shot blocker, and though he’s a bit on the lean side at 200 pounds, the strength coach Barnes will probably hire, Todd Wright, can do something about that.

Alexander’s father played Division I basketball, and his sister was an All-American at Syracuse and first-round draft pick in the WNBA. Basketball is in his genetic makeup.

Kasongo, 6-9 and 230 pounds, is the best kind of junior college transfer. He played his freshman year at the College of Southern Idaho—where he averaged six points and five boards, but more important, 2.2 blocks—but he can transfer with three years of eligibility remaining. ESPN.com’s assessment of his talent sounds good, too:

“Kasongo is an overall low post threat with his back to the basket. He should be able to score and rebound consistently at the high major level with continued development.”

Can Tennessee develop a Canadian pipeline? The better question is, why shouldn’t it?

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