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Nelson: UND-Gonzaga was a showcase of global influence in college basketball

Gonzaga's Filip Petrusev goes up against UND's Filip Brebraca during the teams' game Tuesday night in Spokane. Photo/USA TODAY SPORTS

SPOKANE, Wash. — More and more, college basketball has become an international game.

Need proof of that?

Talk to the number of multilingual players who competed Tuesday night at The Kennel — where No. 8 Gonzaga downed the University of North Dakota 97-66 — and you’ll have a better understanding of the global impact on the hoops game invented by James Naismith.

The rosters for UND and Gonzaga included players from the following foreign countries: Serbia, Lithuania, Russia, France, Latvia and Mali.

UND’s Filip Rebraca, a 6-foot-9 sophomore who already has made his mark with the Hawks, was asked how many languages were spoken on the Gonzaga court.

“Let’s see, English, French, Serbian and Lithuanian,” replied Rebraca. “That’s what we know of.”

Did he understand all of it?

“Serbian and English, yeah,” said Rebraca.

His teammate, Marko Coudreau, who is from France, probably understood even more of the words spoken.

“I speak three languages fluently, English, French and Serbian,” said Coudreau.

And Coudreau knows Gonzaga 6-11 center Filip Petrusev, who is from Serbia. “I’ve known Petrusev from a while back,” said Coudreau. “We used to play against each other every summer on national teams.”

So, that conversation likely was in Serbian. The night before the game, Coudreau also caught up with his old friend from Paris -- Joel Ayayi, who just happens to now play for Gonzaga.

The two spoke in French while visiting in the lobby of the UND team hotel.

“I’ve known him for a long time,” said Coudreau. “We played together for like six years. We used to live in the same place in Paris. We’re pretty good friends. It was really nice to see him and play against him.”

It seems strange that players from halfway across the world, who know each other, eventually would wind up competing against each other in a college basketball game in Spokane, Wash.

But that’s the reality of the college basketball game going global.

For years, Gonzaga has recruited international players and the result has been beneficial as the Zags — with their international stars —have become a national power and potentially could make a run at another Final Four appearance.

Perhaps their best international player — Oumar Ballo — a 6-foot-10, 260-pound freshman from Mali, is sitting out this season. The physical specimen has been called “Baby Shaq” and has been ranked as one of the top international prospects by ESPN.

After all the world-wide recruiting, however, the game is still pretty much the same for everyone, as it’s been for decades.

Coudreau appreciated the atmosphere at Gonzaga on Tuesday night.

“The atmosphere was really impressive, especially when the students were yelling and dancing before the game,” said Coudreau.

UND’s Marlon Stewart has dealt with the Gonzaga experience twice. It’s special, he said.

“It was amazing,” said Stewart, who scored 21 points and performed a high level against the Zags. “They bring the crowd. I don’t know if you heard all the stomping and stuff. It was something to deal with. But I love playing in stuff like this.”

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