The International Presence of USPORTS Men’s Basketball

As our university hoops scene levels up every year, more international players are choosing Canada over the U.S.

If you knew that 30 to 40 Spaniards were all talking Canadian hoops in a WhatsApp group chat, you might assume the Spanish Basketball Federation was doing some advanced scouting on the now sixth-ranked Canadian team.

But while they are Spanish hoopers – male and female – the group chat is not for the purposes of the Spanish national side. Instead, it’s for individuals, coaches and players, to help one another navigate the Canadian post-secondary hoops scene.

“We’re all in one group chat,” said University of Toronto Varsity Blues guard Inaki Alvarez about all the Spaniards who crossed the Atlantic Ocean. “Every year, it grows exponentially.” 

Inaki Alvarez (Courtesy of University of Toronto)

They exchange info, stay up to date, and when one’s in the other’s Canadian hometown, a player often reaches out.

The group admin is a Spanish coach who left Madrid to improve his English and learn how the game was being coached in North America. He left his coaching position on CB Estudiantes (currently in Spain’s LEB Gold) to hop continents.

International players and coaches finding opportunities in USPORTS

That coach is Diego Hernandez Garcia. He flew out to small town Lennoxville, Quebec to be an assistant coach for the Bishop’s Gaiters under Rod Gilpin.

“I was the first and only Spanish coach there. There are not many international coaches there,” said Garcia. In his first and only season at Bishop’s, they only won three games, but the growing pains strengthened his ties with current Bishop’s coach Matt McLean.

Determined to give back to the Bishop’s community, he faced a common problem upon returning to Spain.  

“I was tired of coaching players or seeing other players I was playing against going to the States without success, playing LEB Silver, LEB Gold, making very low money, no studies, injuries,” he said. “Starting university again at 24 years old while they were making low salaries [in Spain].”

Garcia identified an opportunity in North America for his fellow Spaniards: Canadian post-secondary basketball.

Post-COVID, Garcia double downed, sending players to Canadian schools across the country. One of the players in the chat is Calgary Dinos guard Javier Ramos-Yzquierdo. The Dinos boast a diverse roster of players from other basketball countries like Latvian guard Daniels Baumanis and Lithuanian forward Martynas Sabaliauskas. 

While Garcia started to source more Spanish players, the Canadian pro basketball infrastructure, coincidentally, started to bubble up from underneath. The CEBL created a pipeline with USPORTS, and since its inaugural 2019 season, players like Thomas Kennedy and Aiden Warnholtz have been the latest example of how players can develop while staying north of the border.

However, all seven people I spoke to for this piece acknowledged the perception surrounding USPORTS hoops – its inferiority compared to NCAA high-major Division 1 basketball. It’s not just a few handful success stories that challenges this perception though. USPORTS alumni like former Carleton and Team Canada players Aaron Doornekamp and Thomas Scrubb, as well as former TMU (then Ryerson) guard Adika Peter-McNeilly, play in the ACB and LEB Gold, respectively.

It’s worth noting here that former TMU (then Ryerson) coach Roy Rana recruited 7’2’’ Tanor Ngom away from suitors like UConn back in 2017. Ngom came to Canada as a raw, thin-framed Senegalese prospect, and USPORTS basketball prepared him for Florida State after three seasons as TMU. He spent his first Seminoles season playing alongside Scottie Barnes. 

Building on Canadian universities’ brand reputation

But It’s not always coaches and players coming here.

University of Toronto coach Madhav “Muddy” Trivedi slid into Blues forward Lenny Weber’s DM. Weber was from Germany, and had an impressive resume, being a member of the U-16 national team, winner of the 2019 U-19 German national championship, and 2019 U-19 Adidas Next Generation Tournament finalist.

Weber had multiple offers from Ivy League schools, but Toronto shot up to the top of the list.

“For me, it was so easy…because U of T is ranked Top 18 schools [at the time] in the world. And then, the city, the infrastructure, and the location that they have to offer.”

For Weber, U of T’s integration into the life of a big city made it appealing. Former Carleton forward Elliot Bailey who graduated last season and is now playing in his home country’s professional league, the British Basketball League, echoed this sentiment. 

Elliot Bailey (Photo credit: Valerie Wutti/Blitzen Photography)

“Carleton University is more like an established university, and it’s in a major city,” said Bailey about his decision to pick Ottawa over D2 schools. “A lot of these places in the States tend to be  smaller schools, and you don’t really know exactly the situation you’re getting yourself into.”

Where I’m from … a lot of the players didn’t get the opportunities I was lucky enough to get. They were sort of forced to drop the game,” said Bailey about how USPORTS allowed him to keep playing.

Canada is also a place for settlement. Saskatchewan Huskies grad and former forward Maxwell Amoafo, who was 13th overall in total rebounds (201) in the 2022-23 USPORTS season, chose Saskatchewan after getting past the US border into Purdue University became too difficult.  Former Carleton guard and Bailey’s teammate Gabe Samaha moved to Ottawa with his family as refugees after the 2020 Beirut explosion in Lebanon. 

USPORTS has many built-in advantages: our borders are open and welcoming, our post-secondary universities are well-respected internationally, and the perception is that Canada is safer than the United States. USPORTS hoops can build on these advantages, and continue to push its standard of play. 

Most basketball pros play FIBA

Another advantage of USPORTS basketball is that it uses the same rules and regulation that the rest of the pro basketball world plays with, except the NBA and NCAA. And for the vast majority of college hoopers who go to the pros, the NBA isn’t the destination. 

“For us, this is huge [that USPORTS exists] because after four years in the States, coming back to Spain, and playing pro, you’re coming from a different [style of] basketball,” said Garcia. He acknowledged the deep reverence for the international game that USPORTS coaches have.

They spend a lot of time watching FIBA basketball, Euroleague, ACB, European Championships. If you take a look at how they play, they play with systems, they pass the ball, they move the ball.” 

Some foreign imports in Spanish or European pro leagues are in for a rude awakening when their basketball individualism instilled in AAU and the NCAA doesn’t translate. Their ballhandling and bucket-getting abilities may no longer be as coveted. 

“If you see the stats here [in Spain], you will see like eight to 10 players playing decent minutes – 15, 20-25 minutes — scoring eight to 12 points per game,” said Garcia about prioritizing adaptability to systems. “In Spain, you need to have good players who can do multiple things, not only scoring, rebounding.”

USPORTS recently announced lowering its eligibility for athletic scholarships, and that athletic scholarships will equal 100% of tuition and mandatory fees. According to UBC football recruiting coordinator Shomari Williams, OUA is still the only conference that limits the full scholarship amount at $5000, but says this is subject to review. 

This policy change will be implemented next season, and will incentivize more Canadian hoopers to stay home (especially if the OUA gets rid of its current restriction).

This means USPORTS will only continue to get better, and as a result, more international hoopers will flock to Canadian campuses. More group chats in the native language of hoops hotbed nations like Siberia or Germany will hopefully sprout up. 

USPORTS competing with high-major D1 programs may prove challenging, but it will be in the running against mid-major schools. It’s already happening.