October 19, 2009

Transfers change landscape of NE prep basketball

ELKHORN, Neb. - Mount Michael Benedictine head boys basketball John Roshone had heard about the school's two new international transfer students from Sudan. He also heard they were pretty good at basketball.


The reality of the situation, however, didn't actually set in until he saw one of them walk through - or duck under, to be more accurate - the door to his classroom.


There was Deng Gol, a 6-foot-10, 185-pound junior who came to Mount Michael via the A-HOPE Foundation, a non-profit organization geared towards providing African student-athletes an opportunity to come to America and receive top-level educations as well as play sports.


As would be expected, Roshone was thrilled with the new addition to his team. Then he found out there was another one.


Along with Gol, 6-11, 200-pound sophomore Mading Thok also made his way to Mount Michael through the A-HOPE Foundation. Suddenly, a Knights team that went just 6-16 the year before had become a state championship frontrunner.


"We thought we were going to have a pretty good team already," Roshone said. "Now you throw these two in the mix - that changes everything. You can't coach 6-10 and 6-11."


You see, it's not just that Gol (18) and Thok (16) are tall - Mount Michael's next tallest player is 6-6. It also just so happens that they're already considered to be top Division-I college talents.


Before coming to Nebraska, the pair first split ways and attended high schools in different states last school year. Gol, who has gone by the name Deng Agouc, went to Central Park Christian in Birmingham, Ala., while Thok attended Charlotte (N.C.) United Faith Christian.


Both played for their respective high school teams, but it wasn't until they reunited in this summer and played for the AAU power Queen City Prophets in Cincinnati. By the end of the summer, the pair had already been contacted by coaches from several prominent basketball schools, including the likes of Kansas, Xavier, West Virginia and Louisville.


What makes Gol and Thok even more intriguing is how developed their games are despite their age and inexperience. Back in Sudan, organized basketball was a rarity, as the volatile political climate and mass poverty make youth sports a luxury for most children.


As a result, it wasn't until they came to America last fall that Gol and Thok got their first real taste of competitive team basketball.


"I followed the NBA and college back home," Gol said. "There weren't many opportunities to play basketball, so my favorite sport to play there was volleyball. People always told me I should play basketball, so I tried out."


While playing mostly on the junior varsity teams and sparingly on the varsity squads at their respective schools in North Carolina and Alabama, Gol and Thok learned the American version of the game adapted their skills and styles to fit it better.


Even against JV competition, the duo started making names for themselves on the court.
By the time they joined up with the Queen City Prophets, both players were gaining recognition from local prep basketball scouts.


In fact, Thok received some pretty hefty press from media outlets around North Carolina, including one scout who compared him to a young Hakeem Olajuwon.


"I like to play down low in the post," Thok said. "My favorite is defense. That's what I like to play. I like swatting the ball out."


After a summer of AAU ball in Cincinnati, Gol and Thok decided to stick together and relocate to a new school. With the help of their legal guardian, who lives in Indiana, they came across Mount Michael Benedictine, which has featured an international student program for the past seven years.


The pair was immediately drawn to the school because of its renowned academic reputation (it boasted an average ACT score of 27 last year). With a chance to receive a top of the line education and continue playing basketball together, Gol and Thok packed their bags and headed to Omaha.


They arrived in Nebraska the first day of the fall semester, and were in classes the next morning.


Even though they came to the school because of their athletic talents, Gol and Thok will still be held to the same academic requirements of the rest of the student body. Roshone said both of them have shown great effort in the classroom, and while adjusting to the academic workload hasn't been easy, they both have worked extremely hard to make sure school is just as big of a priority as basketball.


As far as the upcoming season goes, Gol and Thok will have to sit out the first seven games of the season because they are required to wait 90 days after transferring schools before they're allowed to play sports.


In the meantime, they'll still be allowed to play on Mount Michael's JV team.


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Though they haven't even played a game at Mount Michael yet, Roshone's cell phone has already been lighting up with calls from college coaches wanting to get some info on the latest additions Nebraska's prep basketball scene.


Roshone said schools Nebraska, Creighton and Iowa State have all been in contact since Deng and Thok arrived, and the two have already been to Lincoln to meet with NU head coach Doc Sadler and his staff.


They recently got their first experience of Husker football, as they attended Nebraska's win over Louisiana-Lafayette on a visit with the basketball staff.


"We went down there and met with Doctor Sadler," Thok said. "He's a pretty good guy."


No school has officially offered either of them a scholarship, but those will likely soon follow their first few varsity games.


As far as prospective colleges go, Gol and Thok have no regional ties to anywhere in the country outside of Indiana, where their legal guardian lives. That means they are open to go anywhere, having no local allegiances to any one or two schools.


This doesn't exactly bode well for the likes of Creighton and Nebraska, as neither Gol or Thok even knew Creighton existed or that Nebraska had a basketball team before coming to Mount Michael.


The only teams they knew about before moving to America were the typical powers like Duke and North Carolina and such, and also schools that featured star African-born players. In particular, Gol said he has always been a big UConn fan because of Hasheem Thabeet, who actually played at the same high school Gol attended while temporarily living in Kenya.


The good news is that Nebraska assistant David Anwar is a friend of Gol and Thok's coach from the Queen City Prophets.


"I had heard of Nebraska before, but I didn't know they had a good basketball program," Thok said. "I didn't ever pay attention to them, and I didn't know I was coming here, so never even thought about them."


Wherever the pair ends up, they just may have started a trend that could change the face of high school basketball in Nebraska. While population issues have helped lead to a dearth of Division-I talent, the state could benefit from the influx of international players coming over through exchange programs and general immigration.


Players like Gol and Thok are undoubtedly grateful for the opportunity to come to Nebraska and get a first-class education. At the same time, coaches like Roshone are grateful for the chance to coach them.


"We've never had one like these two," Roshone said. "Just in the last month, I've had plenty of phone calls (from college coaches) just inquiring about the guys. I can imagine once people start seeing them play and more attention starts coming to them, they probably can only raise the national interest in Nebraska basketball."

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