The logo on the Bren Events Center court reads 'Eater Nation. But first-year UC Irvine men's basketball coach Russ Turner believes that to achieve the kind of success he envisions, the Anteaters will need to utilize players beyond American borders.
Turner, hired in April, announced the arrival of Maxim Chupin, a 6-foot-8, 220-pound post player from France on Monday.
Chupin, who averaged 12.5 points and seven rebounds per game while helping his Cholet club team win the French League Championship this past season, is still awaiting eligibility clearance from the NCAA. But his arrival is not the only new addition of foreign-born talent to the UCI program.
Assistant coaches Ali Ton and Amadou "Pape" Koundoul will be counted upon to help grease the pipeline of foreign talent that Turner hopes will help him lead UCI to the top of the Big West Conference.
Ton is a native of Turkey, where he learned the game under his father, Necmi Ton, who coached professional teams there for many years. Ali Ton came to the United States to play point guard for Los Alamitos High and he starred collegiately at Davidson College in North Carolina, where he is the program's all-time assist leader.
He played professionally in Turkey for four years and had developed a reputation as an international recruiter. He spent the last three seasons at Radford University, where he landed two-time Big South Conference Player of the Year Art Parakhouski from Minsk, Belarus.
Koundoul was born and raised in Dekar-Senegal, Africa, before coming to America at age 20 to play at a prep school. He then competed for three college programs, ending his career at Cleveland State. His brief collegiate coaching career includes a stop last season at Centenary (La.) College, after stints at Saint Stanislaus College in Bay St. Louis, Miss., as well as several high schools. He was also formerly the associate director and coach at Branch West Recruiting Service.
Ton's connections helped land Chupin, but Koundoul, who speaks French fluently, also helped convince the French standout and his family that he would be comfortable at UCI.
"When [Chupin] found out I could speak French, I could tell he was excited," said Koundoul, who knows firsthand how imposing cultural barriers can be.
"I remember being scared when I got on that plane to America," Koundoul said. "I was highly excited, until I got to JFK Airport. Then, I remember saying 'What did I get myself into?' I sat at the airport for two days because my coach was out of town for Thanksgiving and couldn't pick me up. I didn't know English and I didn't even know how to use a calling card. Finally, somebody from Senegal saw me and helped get me on a bus to New Jersey, and someone picked me up from there."
Though Chupin speaks English well, being able to speak French with Koundoul will help ease his cultural transition, Ton said.
"It's a great outlet for Maxim to be able to speak French with [Koundoul]," Ton said. "Maxim's English is very, very good. I know when I came [to America] for the first time, I thought I could speak English very well, though that wasn't the case. I'd get a phone call and I'd start speaking Turkish."
Both Ton and Koundoul said that the educational experience at American universities is very alluring for foreign players.
"It's pretty simple for African families," Koundoul said. "The level of education you get in the United States is something I always mention to them. If I had remained in Africa, the intellectual facets I've developed here, would never have been possible had I never come to the United States. The education system here is one that we are not capable of offering that person in Africa."
Ton and Koundoul, along with holdover assistants Doug Oliver and Ryan Badrtalei, offer numerous positives, Turner said.
"I think we have a good combination of abilities," Turner said. "Clearly there is an international flavor to our staff, but I don't want to create the impression that we are only going to recruit internationally. It's good to have the ability to recruit international players, because there is a possibility there to get a difference-maker that other schools might not be able to be as in touch with as we are. But I wouldn't have hired Pape and Ali if I didn't also think they could recruit locally."
Turner said Ton's expertise will be invaluable to UCI perimeter players, while the former assistant for the Golden State Warriors, Stanford and Wake Forest also praised Koundoul's ability to help refine the abilities of the post players.
"We're not going to be as good as I hope we can be if we don't do an exceptional job of player development," Turner said. "As a staff, we're going to have to help players get better, because we're not going to recruit finished products."