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POETRY IN motion. That's what Patrick (Patty) Mills says he and Andrew Ogilvy created as they ran the court together at the Australian Institute of Sport last year. Mills would push the ball on a break, whistle to Ogilvy and loft an alley-oop pass toward the rim. With perfect, practiced timing, Ogilvy would appear on the wing: step, catch, dunk. ¶ "It really was like that," says Ogilvy, now a freshman center at Vanderbilt. "I don't know how, but we were always able to find each other." ¶ The two mates are 2,000 miles apart now on the other side of the world, but they still know where to find each other—on TV, on the Internet, in the headlines, filling up NCAA box scores. "After a game he'll send me a message, 'Congrats on the win,'" says Mills, now a freshman point guard at St. Mary's in Moraga, Calif. "I'll send him one: 'Great job, saw you on TV—in America, of all places.'"
Ever since Andrew Bogut, a 7-footer out of Melbourne, was named college basketball's 2005 national player of the year as a sophomore at Utah and went No. 1 in that June's NBA draft, America, of all places, has become the destination of choice for many of Australia's best young hoops talents. According to Basketball Australia, the organizing body for the sport Down Under, the number of Aussies on college rosters has risen tenfold from a decade ago, with some 200 Australian men and women playing in the U.S. this year, including 33 in the men's NCAA Division I. Among them is a crew of high-achieving upperclassmen that includes three-time All--Big 12 honoree Aaron Bruce, a 6'3" senior point guard at Baylor whose smart, selfless play has helped spark the 15--2 Bears' revival; Nebraska senior All-America candidate Aleks Maric, a 6'11", 275-pound center whose 16.6 points and 8.2 rebounds a game through Sunday were leading the 11--5 Huskers; 7-foot junior center Luke Nevill, who was pacing 10--6 Utah with 13.6 points and 7.3 rebounds a game; and, most prominently, 6'10", 270-pound junior center Aron Baynes of sixth-ranked Washington State (15--1). Told last spring by Cougars coach Tony Bennett that his team would only be as good as he was, Baynes, a brawny former rugby player from Cairns—"He's a beast," says Washington forward Jon Brockman—dropped 20 pounds and is now a critical contributor in Pullman, averaging 12.1 points and 6.4 rebounds a game.
But no Australian, not even Bogut in his day, has had the immediate impact of Ogilvy and Mills, who have lifted two rarely celebrated teams into the limelight and conference title contention. Ogilvy, a 6'10", 250-pound 19-year-old from Sydney, is Vanderbilt's first bona fide, game-altering center since Will Perdue graduated 20 years ago. He has great hands and quick feet, and thanks in part to the lessons he learned going up against Baynes daily at the AIS for a year, he's well-schooled in the subtleties of post positioning. "He is as fundamentally sound as any big guy his age I've ever seen," says Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings. And rare for a big guy of any age, Ogilvy can shoot free throws: He gets to the line more than seven times a game and makes good on nearly 80% of his shots. Through Sunday he was averaging 18.5 points and 6.8 rebounds a game for the 14th-ranked Commodores, who were off to a surprising 17--2 start.
"He's as dominant a big man as there is in the SEC," says Tennessee coach Bruce Pearl, whose Vols nevertheless held Ogilvy to 12 points in an 80--60 win last Thursday. "His size, his athleticism, his ability to use his body—he's the real deal."
So is the 19-year-old Mills, a creative playmaker who announced his arrival in America with a stunning 37-point performance in the Gaels' 99--87 upset of then 12th-ranked Oregon on Nov. 20. His speed, endurance (he ran a 4:52 mile this fall) and thread-the-needle passes, not to mention his 15.1 points and 4.1 assists a game, helped St. Mary's score its first AP ranking in 18 years—No. 24 in mid-December—though the school has since fallen out of the Top 25.
"Mills is one of the five best point guards in the country right now," says Santa Clara coach Kerry Keating, who watched Mills make 16 points, six assists, three boards and two steals in a 76--45 Gaels win on Jan. 12. "He's got an intangible feel for how to play the position. The last three point guards I recruited [while an assistant at UCLA]—Jordan Farmar, Darren Collison and Russell Westbrook—are in the NBA or are going to be. He's as good or better than all of them."
To understand how two such rare talents arrived here with no fanfare and yet have made their mark in one of the strongest freshman classes, it's worth reviewing the record of Australian-American basketball migration, which has historically been more trickle than wave. Aussies have been playing basketball at U.S. colleges for at least 50 years, but with few exceptions—Andrew Gaze, who played on Seton Hall's 1989 Final Four team; Luc Longley, a two-time all-conference player at New Mexico from 1987 to '91; Luke Schenscher, who helped Georgia Tech reach the 2004 NCAA title game—they played in relative obscurity until Bogut's success grabbed people's attention on both sides of the Pacific. "Then the floodgates to Australia opened," says Washington State assistant Ben Johnson, who recruited Baynes. "Everybody started going down there to find the next Bogut."
Most recruiters on that hunt head straight to the Institute of Sport, Australia's elite development center for basketball and 25 other sports, in the capital city of Canberra. There the country's best young male and female hoopsters train three times a day and play against international competition and domestic pro (women's) and semipro (men's) teams while attending a nearby public high school. (The AIS players maintain their NCAA eligibility because they are strictly amateurs.) By the time U.S. colleges come trolling, the athletes have already been living away from home for one or two years, and have gotten a strong education in nutrition and the game's fundamentals. "They are further ahead than high school kids coming into college because of how they train and who they play against," says Tony Bennett. "They won't be overwhelmed by the intensity and duration of a college season. That puts them ahead of the curve quite a bit."
As a bonus, Aussies are practically hard-wired by their egalitarian culture to be collaborative. "They are great team guys; they are not into their own stats," says St. Mary's coach Randy Bennett. "If you try to sell them on the idea that they'll be all-league this or first-team that, they don't buy it. They aren't comfortable with that."
As Aussies have become more appealing to U.S. colleges, college has become more appealing to Aussies. "A lot of our players see college as a chance to go away, mature physically and further develop their games," says AIS men's coach Marty Clarke.