Ten years ago, former Ole Miss assistant coach Sergio Rouco sat in the stands of the 2006 FIBA Under-16 European Championship in Spain. He watched a teenage Ricky Rubio, the eventual fifth overall pick in the 2009 NBA draft, dominate the competition. Rouco was the head basketball coach at Florida International at the time, scouting for future Panthers to join him in Miami. But he gazed around and noticed something about his surroundings.
“When Ricky Rubio was a 16-year-old, I went to the European Championships, and I was the only American coach there,” Rouco said.
While that may raise an eyebrow now, it wasn’t really anything that unusual at the time. Most of the best talent from these FIBA tournaments would later ink lucrative and long-term contracts with club teams and become professionals. That would make them ineligible to play college basketball in America.
Rouco is a basketball journeyman. He’s coached everywhere from Venezuela to El Paso, Texas. He has more than 30 years of coaching experience and is known as a strong recruiter, particularly outside the U.S.
In 2009, he was coaching pro ball in Venezuela when he got a call from Andy Kennedy. Kennedy had taken a tip from an old coaching buddy and the current South Carolina coach, Frank Martin, who told him about Rouco. Martin had been an assistant under Rouco in the high school ranks in Miami during the early ’90s.
“When AK had an opening, he called Bob Huggins that knows me and knows Frank. Frank was the one that pushed for me to get a job,” Rouco said.
Kennedy needed someone with head coaching experience, and Rouco had that. He also needed someone who could get talent to Oxford.
“They told me when they interviewed me that I can get them from anywhere and that I think outside the box, so whatever that means,” Rouco quipped. “One of the things about me is that I’ve gotten good American players as well as European. If I can go to a place and not have to beat out Duke and SMU and UCLA for a player, that’s where I am going to go.”
Rouco’s forward thinking sprung into action again. When a recession hit across the globe in 2008 and 2009, he noticed a change in behavior in young players overseas.
“We got hit with the recession. All those kids that were in Europe that would stay and make money, they wouldn’t make the same money they would have made in years past,” Rouco said. “Because some of the teams were folding and some of them would just bag youth teams.”
European club teams operate similarly to major league baseball franchises and their farm systems in the sense that they have youth teams. They pay for the kids’ housing and food and bring them up in the system. If a player is good enough, the club signs him to a professional contract before he can be lured away elsewhere.
“But when the recession hit, these kids were like ‘Wow. We are playing in the youth league, and it is not the same competition. It’s really not as glamorous. We ride buses everywhere,’ so I tapped into that market,” Rouco said.
Rouco’s first big land? Ole Miss senior forward Sebastian Saiz. Rouco first spotted him at the age of 16 and began to build a relationship with him.
“It just so happens that I speak Spanish. Sebas took a liking to me. His mom has been phenomenal,” Rouco, who is Cuban, said. “We hit it off and when they came on the visit, AK’s wife, (Ole Miss assistant coach) Bill (Armstrong’s) wife and my wife did an unbelievable job of making his mom feel like we were going to care about her 6-foot-9 baby.”
Saiz and his mother felt secure in the small and welcoming community that is Oxford. And when Saiz moved to the United States to attend Sunrise Christian Academy in Wichita, Kansas, it was a slam dunk. He signed with the Rebels.
Bringing a teenager halfway across the world to an unfamiliar setting has its challenges. Of course, there are the societal adjustments a kid must make, but he must also adjust on the court. One of the hardest adjustments is the speed of the American game.
“The athleticism of the American players really comes into play early on,” Rouco recalled. “Early on we were having doubts how quick he could jump and stay with the American players.”
One aspect that most European players are advanced in is their skill set.
“They’re ahead of the game when it comes to skill. They know their game, and their basketball IQ is probably better than kids that we have that were born America,” said Ole Miss Assistant Coach Todd Abernethy, who played at Ole Miss from 2004-07. Abernethy has spearheaded the international recruiting efforts since Rouco left for South Florida in 2014.
Why is this the case? To put it simply, Europe has better coaches at the youth level.
“Coaches over there are former professional basketball players,” Abernethy said. “So imagine at 8 years old being coached by a former pro. That’s a lot different than what we have here.”
Coaches in Europe have to be certified, entering a program to become coaches. While it is a cliché in America to say someone is a student of the game, that’s quite literally what coaches are in Europe.
“When I was over there, the assistants that were coaching me were always studying. They had a textbook with them. They had to be certified. Their goal is to be a coach, so they had to be certified,” Abernethy said.
It’s a stark difference to what is offered in America.
“The kids in America are coached by AAU guys that don’t have a degree,” Rouco said. “And most of them, but not all of them, are not qualified socially, culturally or basketball to be making decisions or coaching kids in their biggest time of year before going to college.”
Abernethy said he thinks that the number of games kids play in AAU ball takes time away from crafting their skills. He also said the structure in the AAU game is lacking.
“If you watch the NBA, and this is probably very generalized, but people watch the NBA and assume it’s all about isolation and it’s street ball. AAU is that times 100,” Abernethy said. “There is no defense. There is not a lot of structure, so a lot of kids come to us with bad habits and haven’t been properly coached.”
There is no high school basketball in Europe. Kids enter basketball clubs as early as 8 or 9 years old and are coached daily by fully trained professionals. In America, a history or science teacher may also assume the role of basketball coach.
In essence, middle-tier college programs can get highly skilled players from overseas without having to compete with the blue bloods of the sport.
That’s how Rouco has made a career.
“It’s been my niche. I am not hard-headed and stupid enough to go against the big boys when I know I’m spinning my wheels,” he said.
It’s also unexpectedly become Abernethy’s niche. He played six years overseas, making relationships that spread across eastern Europe.
He played in Latvia, which later helped him sign 6-foot-11-inch freshman forward Karlis Silins.
“You get kids that are under the radar,” Abernethy said. “Coach (Kennedy) has said this: if Karlis went to high school in America, he’d be a top-100 kid, no doubt, because of his size, because of his athleticism, because of his skills and because of his IQ. So we are getting kids that are just as good.”
Abernethy played in Poland, which helped him bring Polish-born Tomasz Gielo from Liberty University in Virginia to Ole Miss last year, and that relationship helped him connect with and sign 7-foot center Dominik Olejniczak, who had schools like Arizona, Kansas and California after him when he transferred from Drake.
“He’s a legit European 7-footer that is a block-to-block guy and gives us a real presence at the rim,” Kennedy said.
Abernethy has lived in these players’ countries. He knows their cultures. He knows what it is like to be thousands of miles away from home and in a different world.
“It is really about showing them that this will be a family atmosphere. We are going to wrap our arms around them and give them the support they need,” Abernethy said. “It’s easy to do that because I’ve been over there. I know what is needed to make kids feel comfortable.”
It’s hard to adjust off the court, too. The players come to America sometimes needing to set up basic things such as a cell phone plan or a bank account.
“It’s easy to get wrapped up in thinking it’s all about basketball. Their days are so busy with weights, with study halls, with tutors and with practice,” Abernethy said. “It is important to check with them to see how they are doing with everything outside of basketball.”
One of the first things the team does each year is have a family-style meal at Kennedy’s house.
With four international players on Ole Miss’ roster, having a guy like Saiz, who has made the transition himself, understands what it’s like and has developed into a good SEC basketball player, doesn’t hurt either.
“Sebas was the one that opened the road for all of the other European kids going to Ole Miss. He got to the big stage. He went to a city that you wouldn’t think a European kid would want to go to,” Roucco said. “They all want to go to big cities. Sebas made it work. He made it happen. And when they play on ESPN and Todd Abernethy can say we’ve got three European kids playing, the next kid is going to want to go to Ole Miss.”
Basketball is a global game. There were 113 international players on NBA rosters on opening night.
“As opposed to like 40 or 50 a couple of years ago. You’re talking about doubling or tripling a number, so that shows it is a global game,” Kennedy said.
Ole Miss has taken notice and spread its recruiting roots across the world.
Kennedy says Abernethy is one of his favorite players he’s ever coached. Hiring him in 2013 was obvious. What wasn’t immediately obvious was how big of an impact Abernethy’s European connections would have on his program.
“He came in here and completely owned it and changed this thing right away,” Kennedy said.
Like Rouco, Abernethy found his indentation in this program.
“That’s my niche. That’s something I’m very proud of,” Abernethy said. “I had never thought about it, but because of the experience I had over there and as a result the relationships have opened the door to getting kids. That’s something a lot of schools want is international players because they’re good.”
What started with Rouco and a recession was amplified by Abernethy, and it has changed the complexion of the Ole Miss roster.
“A couple of years ago, we were full of Mississippians and Memphians,” Kennedy said. “Now we are full of Polish kids and Latvians, so it just kind of runs in circles.”