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8/22/2007 11:40:00 AM
Around The World
After an impressive performance in the European U-19 Championships, Ohio State freshman Kosta Koufus could find himself playing for Greece in Beijing.
AJ Mast/Icon SMI
Kosta Koufos returned home on Sunday from the European Under-18 Championships in Madrid, and by Monday the 18-year-old had slipped back into the anonymity of pickup games in his hometown of Canton, Ohio. Soon he'll make the 128-mile trip to Columbus to begin fall classes at Ohio State and, in the winter, inevitably become known to casual college basketball fans as "The Greek Guy who Replaced Greg Oden". Koufos, Rivals.com's No. 16-rated player in the Class of '07, is talented enough to start for nearly any program in the nation as a freshman. But it will take a while -- certainly much longer than it did for Oden -- for the 7-foot-1 big man to become a household name in the NCAA.
There is one place where Koufos is already quite popular, though: Greece. So much so that a ripple of Kosta-mania spread over the country's countless sports papers -- and even non-sports, national TV networks such as MEGA -- in the past few weeks. "The European media coverage was nuts ... almost out of hand," Koufos said of the scene in Spain, as well as what occurred when he arrived in Greece after the tournament. "After games, in the locker room, they were everywhere; I'd get pictures taken of me stretching. In Greece I was on TV every day."
What was the reason for the overseas media assault on a guy who, stateside, is only familiar to recruitniks and Ohio State fans? When you see Koufos' per-game averages from the U-18s, where he led Greece to a silver medal and was named the tournament MVP, the attention seems warranted: 26.5 points, 13.0 rebounds, 3.5 blocks and 1.4 steals, according to a gushing report from DraftExpress, which called it perhaps the best performance by a European junior this decade. It was promising enough for Koufos to get attention from the Greek men's senior national team, whom you'll recall were the savvy bunch that upset the U.S. team in the Athens games in '04. "I have to stay focused and work for it, but I have a real good chance to play in the 2008 Olympics now," Koufos said. One doubts there are other any other incoming college freshmen with the potential of playing such a sizable role in Beijing.
The Canton-born Koufos' connection to Greece is his mother, Kathy, who lived in Messini until the age of six, when her family emigrated to Australia and eventually the U.S., settling in Ohio. Kosta was able to obtain dual citizenship through a year-long, paperwork-heavy process, clearing him to follow what he called a "dream" and play for the Hellas. (The Greek media was already following Koufos before he was officially Greek: At the Jordan Classic in April, I sat next to a reporter who, I was somewhat stunned to learn, had traveled from Athens to see Koufos -- as well as investigate into whether Florida-bound guard Nick Calathes, who has Greek relatives, might also be a potential Hellas convert.)
Once in Spain, Koufos was forced to quickly acclimate himself with the Greeks' playing style. He speaks the language well enough to communicate with teammates, but had just over a week between when he arrived in Europe and the tournament's championship rounds began. "Kosta basically got off the plane and started playing," said Kathy. "Considering he had barely any practice with the guys, it worked out really well."
Well, indeed, and despite there being little-to-no U.S. media coverage of Koufos' performance (not a single newspaper article about it pops up in Google News), he kept Ohio State assistant Dan Peters informed on the Greek team's silver-medal run through regular phone calls. While no one expects the Buckeyes to be back in the Final Four, Koufos' summer abroad was a promising indication of how they might re-tool and remain Big Ten contenders in the year after Greg. Incumbent power forward Othello Hunter can handle more of the dirty work in the paint, and Koufos is a versatile big man who can provide offense at either the 4 or 5 positions. The adjective most frequently found in recruiting services' reviews of Koufos' game was "Euro-style." Now he has the passport to match.
MORE INTERNATIONAL BOOSTS
The top seven performances by current NCAA players on international teams over the summer:
1. Aron Baynes, Jr. C, Washington State (AUSTRALIA, World University Games): 18.1 points, 9.0 rebounds, 2.3 blocks
The Aussies finished in 17th place at the WUG, but it wasn't Baynes' fault: He scored in double figures in every game and shot 67.1 percent from the field.
2. Gerald Lee, Soph. F, Old Dominion (FINLAND, U-20 Europe): 17.7 points, 9.7 rebounds, 1.8 assists in Division B
U.S. fans last saw Lee posting a stellar, 10-point, 11-rebound performance off the bench in ODU's first-round NCAA tournament loss to Butler. Finnish fans saw him dominating second-division competition this summer the Euro U-20s.
3. Theo Davis, Fr. F, Gonzaga (CANADA, World University Games)
Team Canada has yet to release full stats from the Universiade in Bangkok, but game reports for the bronze medalists included a few beastly Davis stat lines, including double-doubles against both Korea and Japan.
4. Nikola Dragovic, Soph. F, UCLA (SERBIA, U-20 Europe): 12.1 points, 5.4 rpg, 29.3 mpg
A pine-rider for the Bruins during their latest Final Four run, Dragovic was the third-leading scorer for gold medalist Serbia, hitting 45.2 percent of his 3s.
5. Daniel Hackett, Soph. PG, USC (ITALY, U-20 Europe): 9.1 points, 2.0 assists, 3.9 reb, 1.8 steals, 22.6 minutes
Hackett, who will team up with O.J. Mayo in the Trojans' backcourt this fall, was the third-leading scorer for the bronze-medalist Italians.
6. Jevohn Shepherd, Jr. F, Michigan (CANADA, World University Games): 12.7 points, 3.9 rebounds, 1.1 steals
Only a bit player on the Wolverines, Shepherd was a stud for Canada in the WUG, dropping 28 points on New Zealand and 19 on Israel for the bronze medalists.
7. Gal Mekel, Soph. PG, Wichita State (ISRAEL, U-20 Europe): 7.9 points, 3.1 assists, 26.5 mpg
Mekel, who played backup point for the Shockers as a freshman last season, led the sixth-place Israelis in assists and shot 41.2 percent from beyond the arc.
UPDATE: SI.com's Bill Trocchi, a Vandy man, alerted me to the stellar showing of incoming Commodores freshman Andrew Ogilvy, who was a surprise force in the Under-19 World Championships. Ogilvy averaged 22.3 points, 9.8 rebounds and 2.4 blocks for Australia -- and made Vandy coach Kevin Stallings look like a genius for quietly plucking the 6-11 center off the international recruiting market. The addition of the big Aussie might just make up for the loss of Ted Skuchas.