The Aussie Connection: Native Australians took different paths to UTRGV

EDINBURG — UTRGV redshirt senior Johnny Crnogorac said there wasn’t much to it. He played basketball because he was taller than the kids around him.

“I never really paid attention to how tall I was when I was younger,” Crnogorac said. “There was never a period of time where I grew exponentially or a time where I thought, ‘Huh, wow, I’m pretty tall.’ I was 15 and literally looking down at my teachers.”

Crnogorac, who is 7-feet-1-inch, grew up in Sydney, Australia’s largest city.

“Basketball was something that kept me occupied,” Crnogorac said. “I kept getting really good at it and I kept growing. Then there’s a point where you realize that maybe it’s time to take the sport seriously and see where it takes you. When I got to that point, it was like, ‘Eh, sweet. I’m in the U.S., playing basketball.”

Crnogorac’s first exposure to college basketball happened in 2013. Butler, the two-time NCAA title game participant in 2010 and 2011, spent its overseas trip in Australia six years ago.

“Butler came down to play some pro teams in Australia,” Crnogorac said. “They played the Sydney Kings’ reserve squad at a school that was 20 minutes from where I live. I wanted to go and see what that was about. Butler won convincingly, but it was cool watching those guys play at that level and compete against professionals.”

University of Texas Rio Grande Valley guard Johnny Crnogorac (20) drives to the basket against North Dakota in a non conference game at the UTRGV Fieldhouse on Wednesday, Dec 5, 2018, in Edinburg.

Crnogorac landed at Ole Miss, but he redshirted his freshman year before playing junior college basketball at Southwest Tennessee Community College.

“It gave me an idea of the level of competition that’s in the United States, and honestly, how hard I’d have to work to get to that level,” Crnogorac said. “Looking back, watching Butler was a realization that they really mean business over there.”

Crnogorac was joined this season by freshman guard Uche Dibiamaka. Dibiamaka is an Adelaide native, a city located in southern Australia.

Dibiamaka and Crnogorac were recruited to Edinburg, in part, by UTRGV assistant coach Luke Mackay, a Perth, Australia native himself.

“Johnny’s my roommate, so even though I’m far away from home, I still have an element of Australia with me,” Dibiamaka said. “That and having an Australian on the coaching staff (Mackay) definitely influenced my decision to come here. Knowing that I have that support is great.”

“Johnny and Uche are fantastic,” Mackay said. “They’re high-character kids. They take care of their business in the classroom, on the court and they’re great to be around. Whether they’re from Australia or the moon, if we can take as many good people as we can, we’ll take them.”

The basketball scene in Australia has exploded in the half-decade since Crnogorac moved to the United States. The Saint Mary’s men’s basketball team continues to put teams in the NCAA Tournament with several Australian natives on its rosters.

Since 2014, fellow Aussies Dante Exum, Thon Maker and Ben Simmons became NBA lottery picks.

Crnogorac knows why the Australian basketball pipeline eventually leads to the U.S.

“There isn’t a college sports scene in Australia,” Crnogorac said. “It’s such a huge system here, but that just isn’t present in Australia, and that’s why I wanted to come here in the first place. There aren’t any sports or full-ride athletic scholarships at schools there. It’s still competitive, but it’s only competitive academics.”

UTRGV coach Lew Hill uses Crnogorac and Dibiamaka as a part of his 10-man rotation.

Dibiamaka has been the only true freshman to earn significant minutes on a nightly basis this season for UTRGV.

“I’m still on learning curve,” Dibiamaka said. “I’m trying to focus on improving so I can try to improve as much as I can. My role is to defend and bring intensity with whatever minutes I get. It’s a new role that I’m fitting into, but I’m doing my best to embrace that role to help the team win.”

“As you get better as a program, it makes it harder for freshmen to come in and play right away,” Mackay said. “Uche is a little different as a freshman because he’s physically ready. He’s very strong and athletic. He’s got a lot of talent. As he continues to get a feel for the college game, he’ll continue to get better and better.”

UTRGV (14-12, 6-4) is playing its best basketball of the season. In its last two games, UTRGV trailed by double-digits at Grand Canyon and CSU Bakersfield only to come back from the dead and sweep the two-game road trip last week.

The Vaqueros are on a four-game winning streak that helped jump them into third place in the WAC standings. UTRGV returns home to face Seattle at 7 tonight and Utah Valley at 7 Saturday night at the UTRGV Fieldhouse.

“We want to finish at the top of conference, for sure,” Dibiamaka said. “We lost some games that we should have won, but now we’re in the second half of the conference schedule. We’re on a roll right now. If we don’t lose any home games, I think we’ll be right where we need to be heading into the postseason.”