TUCSON -- He was born in Australia. The roots of his game are from his parents' native Croatia. He was a star in Athens and has carried Utah into the NCAA Tournament. Basketball is an international game, and 7-foot Andrew Bogut is its latest rising star.
Soon, the NBA will make him a lottery pick, maybe the No. 1 choice overall. Before that, though, Bogut has some unfinished business with the Utes.
"Here's a guy that no one's been able to stop all year," UTEP coach Doc Sadler said. "He's probably the premier guy in college basketball. If they're talking about whether or not you're going to be the third pick or the first pick, that's pretty good. I mean, what can't he do?"
Sadler's 11th-seeded Miners (27-7) will try to contain Bogut and the No. 6 seed Utes (27-5) today in a first-round Austin Region game at Arizona's McKale Center. The game will be the second afternoon contest. In the first game, No. 3 seed Oklahoma (24-7), the Big 12 regular-season champion, will play 14th-seeded Niagara (20-9), making its first NCAA Tournament appearance in 35 years.
The evening contests feature teams from the Albuquerque Region. No. 3 seed Gonzaga (25-4) faces No. 14 Winthrop (27-5), and sixth seed Texas Tech (20-10) plays No. 11 seed UCLA (18-10) in the nightcap.
Utah wants Bogut to touch the ball on every possession. If he doesn't score -- and he can even hit an occasional 3-pointer -- then the collapsing zone defense or double-team leave a teammate wide open.
"He's throwing it out, and we're basically playing horse out there," Utah's Tim Drisdom said. "We get a lot of open jump shots, and it's up to us to knock them down."
Bogut is averaging 20.7 points and is third in Division 1 at 12.3 rebounds per game. He made 64 percent of his shots, third-best in the country. Thomas leads UTEP in scoring at 20.4 points per game, but Puerto Rican point guard Filiberto Rivera makes the team go.
The Purple Eagles of Niagara, whose long trip to Tucson included a four-hour flight delay, are relishing their underdog status against the Sooners.
"Like I always say," coach Joe Mihalich said, "they've got
Oklahoma coach Kelvin Sampson, of course, was having none of that. He said that Juan Mendez "could start for any team in our conference."
Gonzaga and Winthrop bring the two longest active winning streaks into the NCAA Tournament. The Bulldogs have won 12 in a row, Winthrop 18. Gonzaga is in its seventh straight NCAA Tournament and has its second consecutive high seeding. It was No. 2 last year. Today's finale features Bob Knight's Red Raiders against a UCLA team that barely made the NCAA field. Texas Tech is in the tournament for the third time in Knight's four seasons at the school.
UCLA, meanwhile, has its lowest seed in history in a tournament it has won 11 times.