David Patrick has made a positive impression since arriving at UC Riverside as head coach, continuing a trend of bringing a little bit of down under with him wherever he goes.
In his first taste of coaching at NCAA Division I level at Nicholls State, there were two Australian's on the roster. He would then go on to spend three years at Saint Mary's where the Aussie talent pipeline was well and truly flowing. His stint at LSU saw the trend continue across four years, and now entering his third year as head coach at UC Riverside, he is lifting the level of recruitment from down under to a new level.
Patrick is set to roll out a squad with nine players from Australia and New Zealand in 2020/21. In speaking with The Pick and Roll, Patrick explained how his roster has evolved since his arrival in Riverside.
"We got Dragan [Elkaz] in year one, when I was trying to lay the foundation," explained Patrick on how he got started in building his Highlanders roster. "It was him and Daniel Mading, a kid from Perth. But he came to high school from America, coming over as a year 10 kid, so not many people [back home in Australia] know him.
"So he came in early with Dragan [Elkaz] on the Australian side of things, and then we brought in Callum McCrae from New Zealand. I brought them in not so much as to recruit from Australia [or New Zealand], but they bring what I needed in terms of culture, winning, understanding the international game. Dragan playing for Australia at the under 17's [World Championships] helped us, especially when you are trying to lay your foundations. So it was really great to get those three on board in year one.
"We have a few more now."
From two Aussies and a Kiwi in his debut season as a head coach, Patrick is set to roll out no fewer than nine next season following an impressive recruiting campaign, which includes luring 2019 Junior Tall Black Flynn Cameron from DePaul and 7'1 senior centre Jock Perry from Saint Mary's.
"He graduates in May, so NCAA rules allow him to play right away," Patrick explained about Perry.
"I think he had a great time at Saint Mary's and obviously they won a lot of games. I think for him to really excel and play at the college [level] was probably to go somewhere and get a lot of minutes, and I think he can do that for us as a senior. Whether it is starting or coming off the bench, I think he get some significant minutes with us which is probably not the case at Saint Mary's."
The 6'9 Daniel Mading is returning alongside promising 6'4 shooting guard Jay Cross from Melbourne. Patrick explained that Cross had an interesting background, with his father a former professional basketballer who played in Melbourne back in the 1980s.
"I don't know if you remember back in the day, Dwayne Cross played in the [Victorian] state league for the Westside [Melbourne] Saints and Keilor many moons ago. He [Jay] grew up in Melbourne and went to school at Haileybury [College] and then he came over to the US in year 11. He is a walk-on, which means he is a paying student. He actually played at Sandringham as a junior. He'll be entering his second year for us this year."
Also returning for his third year is New South Welshman Dragan Elkaz, a player that Patrick was hoping would play a large role in his team's success this coming year.
"We expect him to have a prominent role," outlined Patrick. "Year one we just played the young guys - basically everyone that believed in what we were saying and got them the experience that they should have. He was a victim of us last year having some transfers in the program who were older, and our winning record went from 10 to 17, and I think it was because we played the older guys. So Dragan was good, but he was not as good as the older guys in front of him, so we hope that now with some of them gone that he can step in contribute like he did as a freshman which were really good numbers."
Patrick would go on to explain the changes he made last season that enabled his program to take another step forward.
"When you take over a program, you are trying to get buy-in at first, and we were so bad and deficient offensively, that I inserted all the offensive guys in year one. The problem was our defense was deficient as well. So I flipped the tables on that this year and really played the guys that defended and gave us the toughness in year two. Hopefully we can pull it all together in year three and move up the ladder."
Set to make an impact as freshmen next season are Victorians Ollie Hayes-Brown and Will Tattersall. Patrick explained that he was excited to be able to add talent of their calibre to the playing roster.
"We are excited about Tattersall, he's make a huge jump at the CoE," enthused Patrick. "We think he can come in and really shoot the ball for us, and that experience at the CoE coupled with his experience in Victoria, will help us.
"Ollie Hayes-Brown is a 6'10 post player that kinda can stretch the floor some. I think he can really help us. We have a senior 4-man coming back, but I think Ollie can get some minutes at the 4 for us and be able to help us.
"He was actually here with us last year, but I red-shirted him, just so he could get stronger and caught up with the game rather than just sit on the bench and get mad not playing. It was a good year for him to grow and I think he really capitalised on getting bigger and stronger while he sat out. I'm expecting some pretty big things from him."
With New Zealand duo Callum McCrae and Angus McWilliam also returning, Patrick this week announced the signing of fellow New Zealander and former national junior team representative Flynn Cameron to the roster to make it nine players from down under on the playing roster - something that almost unprecedented. When you add Patrick and his Australian assistant Michael Czepil to the list, that's 11 in total from the trans-Tasman nations.
Patrick explained that bringing in Czepil as one of his assistants was crucial in helping underpin his success in tapping the talent pipeline from down under.
"I brought Mike in in my first year and it's kinda like come full circle," shared Patrick. "My first coaching year was at Nicholls and I brought Mike to be one of our players - him and Ryan Bathie.
"Mike was a key hire for me, definitely. When I was an assistant coach, I had all the answers. I knew how to coach, how to recruit, and now I'm a head coach and I know nothing! So Mike definitely helps me with that route, as he has been in that system and knows a lot of the younger kids I have no clue about. People also respect him over there in Victoria and Australia, and so it definitely helps having some boots on the ground in Australia to help me try to close guys out once they get to campus here."
With a roster loaded with Australian and New Zealand talent, the Highlanders have topped Saint Mary's, Hawaii and Cal Baptist for the most players from down under next season. Patrick explained there was a clear link between all of these schools recruiting Australian and New Zealand talent.
"Eran [Ganot], the head coach at Hawaii, was with us at Saint Mary's," said Patrick. "He was the operations guy at Saint Mary's, so obviously that helped and he is smart to do that [recruit from Australia]. When I left Saint Mary's to go to the [Houston] Rockets, we hired Rick Croy, who is now the head coach at Cal Baptist. So [the recruiting of Australian players] is all kinda intertwined."
While more than half of his roster has been sourced from across the Pacific, Patrick confirmed there was a definite strategy to continue to try and source the best players from Australia and New Zealand.
"Look, I think it is [a strategy to recruit from down under]," Patrick confirmed. "One thing I will say is that you want to get the best players. We are in Riverside which is called the inland empire here in California, and we want to get the talent from this area first, and then branch out. It's been proven it can be done. Rather than go East, I try to West to Australia!
"You just gotta get guys that fit your system and can play for your coach - whether they are from Australia, Europe, Texas, Chicago, wherever it may be. They gotta fit what we're about and what I'm about, as ultimately I have to coach them daily. But I do find that obviously, the Australians, have a work ethic and a belief in trying to play after college - whether that be in the NBL or Europe, or the NBA f they are blessed to be there, we want to continue to chase that route while taking care of the guys at home here.
"Obviously I played growing up there [in Australia], and coaching in the system for fifteen years, I kinda know what works and doesn't work at each level.
"Last year being part of the national program helps as well, identifying talent at a young age, and finding out who is interested in coming to the US and who is interesting is going to the NBL. Both paths are great, but I think it is easier to pick up for the phone for me, to call my friends who are coaching to get direct answers or figure out who fits what I am about very quickly."
While Patrick matched the Highlanders program record for wins last season, the coronavirus global pandemic may well have prevented him from owning the benchmark outright. While the COVID-19 impact resulted in the cancellation of the conference tournament, he remained steadfast in his focus of creating a winning team and culture at Riverside.
"If you go over our record from last year, we won at Nebraska, we won at Fresno State, so we did some things that haven't been done here before. 17 wins in the most wins in school history at the Division I level, and so we are at that number. So who knows? We could have won another game or two in the conference tournament because our year got cut short by COVID-19. So I think we are on the right track.
"We have the nucleus of our team back, I see us in contention to be at the top of the league. We have a lot of returners who know what we are all about. The foundations that the coaches set have shown that we can win. Now we have to go out and do it on a more consistent basis this year."
With a growing representation of talent from down under, the Highlanders are a team that Australian and New Zealand basketball fans should sit up and take notice of.