DURHAM, N.H. - Three college basketball student-athletes spend summer playing internationally, representing countries.
You might not expect to hear that these three student-athletes compete in the America East conference. Even if you were told they play in America East, you probably still would not guess they were members of the University of New Hampshire men's basketball team.
But it is a new era for the UNH men's basketball program. An era where last year, defense translated into wins. Just check the numbers. The Wildcats were 6-2 when holding opponents to less than 40 percent from the field. They were 12-2 when holding opponents to 60 points or less. They did not give up leads, going 9-2 when in front at the half. They held the opposing team's leading scorer under his season average 17 times, including when they held an NBA draft prospect averaging 18.7 points and 12.6 rebounds per contest, to just seven points and eight rebounds.
An era where they put together their best home record (8-5) in 11 years. An era where they won back-to-back conference openers for the first time in 13 years. An era where they won two of their first three conference games for the first time in 14 seasons. An era where they recorded wins over defending conference champions in consecutives seasons for the first time in 15 years.
An era where they submitted their best finish to a regular season (4-1) in 14 years. An era where they finished .500 in the conference for just the second time in seven seasons. An era where they produced the most wins (14) in 14 years. An era where they earned their highest America East tournament seed (No 4.) in seven years. An era where they advanced to just their sixth semifinal in school history. An era where they came within two minutes of not only playing in, but hosting, the first title game in school history.
An era where juniors Alvin Abreu (Lynn, Mass.), James Valladares (Kaufman, Texas) and Dane DiLiegro (Lexington, Mass.) were all selected to play with national teams this summer and represent their respective countries.
"Any opportunity a kid has to represent a country is a great accomplishment," UNH men's basketball head coach Bill Herrion said. "As a coach you always want your kids playing during the offseason and during the summer, and to know that these three young men participated in international basketball is a real positive thing."
Abreu spent about a month of his summer working out with the Dominican National Team in the capital city of Santo Domingo. Though Abreu was born in the United States, he could play for the Dominican Republic because both his mother and late father were born there.
Abreu was invited down to train as part of a pre-selection squad that was vying for a roster spot on the team that played in the Pre-World Games in September to try and qualify for the 2012 Olympics.
The guard practiced and scrimmaged with numerous professionals, in addition to other college players like himself. Francisco Garcia of the Sacramento Kings, Charlie Villanueva of the Detroit Pistons and Edgar Sosa, a senior at Louisville, were some of the names Abreu competed with day in and day out.
"Not only has this experience made me a better person overall, it has made me a better player because I was able to practice with professionals and really soak in a lot of knowledge, especially from Francisco," Abreu explained. "His work ethic proved to me that no matter where you are, work ethic is the key to how you grow as a basketball player."
Before Abreu left after not making the Pre-Worlds team, officials met with him and explained that they mainly brought him out to see him play in person. They were very impressed with his skills and competitiveness and see Abreu as an important piece of the future of the Dominican National Team.
Although he liked what he heard from the team, Abreu did not settle. He never settles.
"The experience has given me a new motivation for my upcoming season," Abreu said. "I have an extra chip on my shoulder because now I feel like I have something to prove to myself and other people."
While basketball was the focus of Abreu's trip to his parents' homeland, family also played a large role.
"While I was out there I spent a lot of quality time with my family members that I haven't seen for many, many years," Abreu said. "My whole family is Dominican so I received a lot of support from them. They were at a lot of my practices. They were proud of me, and to be practicing with those who represent their country made them even happier. It was a great feeling."
There was one person missing, however. Abreu's father, Angel, who passed away in 2004, was deeply involved in the politics of the country and might have enjoyed his son's accomplishment more than anyone.
"Even though my father is not here with me now, I know for a fact that he would have been the happiest of them all," Abreu said. "Just for the simple fact that he really had a passion and love for the Dominican Republic as a country."
Abreu did get to spend time with his father on the trip, even if just for a short time. He was able to visit his father's grave for the first time ever.
"I've been meaning to go down there and see it, but have not had the chance until this past summer," Abreu said. "It made this trip that much more worthwhile, because I always told myself that I would see his grave when the time came, and it mysteriously found its way to me with this opportunity."
In the end, Abreu, a tri-captain this season for UNH, was happy he made the trip to the Dominican.
"It meant a lot to me to be called down to represent what I consider my country too, as well as my family's country," Abreu said. "I'm glad I decided to go, because now I see things a lot different than before, in a good way."
Herrion also spoke of the importance of representing not only your own country, but the country of your parents, as well.
"It's a great thing anytime you can wear a jersey of your country or your parents' country," Herrion said. "That is something that should make not only the player proud, but everyone associated with them proud."
Valladares, meanwhile, tried out for and made the El Salvador National Team. Valladares obtained dual citizenship because his father, Robert, was born in El Salvador before moving to the U.S. with his family when he was a teenager. Robert was reading the Salvadorian newspaper this past summer when he came across an article about a handful of players leaving the Salvadorian team. He contacted the team, which was immediately interested and flew Valladares in the following week.
Valladares practiced for about
three and a half weeks in the capital city of San Salvador.
"Everyone in the country was very friendly and I had a great time," Valladares said. "There was a pretty big language barrier, but I knew some basic Spanish and a few guys on the team were from the U.S. and Canada so they were fluent in English.
"It's a whole different world over there," Valladares added. "Different food, different culture, and definitely much poorer than the U.S."
After making the team, Valladares and the squad traveled to Cancun, Mexico, for the FIBA COCABA Games. They played five games in the tournament, splitting with Honduras, while losing to Costa Rica, Mexico and Nicaragua. Valladares said the team was almost completely new and had the youngest roster in the tournament. The tournament dates were also changed at the last minute, causing some of the other college players to have to return to the U.S. before they could play in any games.
"Overall, we played well for our first time being together," Valladares said. "I think we have a chance to be very good in the future."
Valladares himself played very well, averaging 17.4 points per game, while starting all five games and bouncing back and forth between the 4 and 5 spots.
With a handful of current and former NBA players, as well as others that play professionally in other countries, Valladares said the competition in the tournament was great. Former Phoenix Sun Horacio Llamas, a 7-foot, 250-pound center was guarding Valladares when he exploded for a tournament-high 25 against Mexico. Current New Jersey Nets forward Eduardo Najera was also on the Mexican roster, while former San Antonio Spur and Houston Rocket, Romel Beck, best known for his crossover on Kobe Bryant at the 2007 FIBA Americas Championship, was named tournament MVP for Mexico.
"It was a huge honor to represent El Salvador," Valladares said. "I was very grateful for the opportunity to play basketball with the team."
Valladares, while he says it is not set in stone, will most likely be back with the team next summer, playing in a tournament in Puerto Rico. And he will be looking forward to it, knowing this first go-around improved him both athletically and personally.
"I definitely think the experience helped me as a basketball player and as a person," Valladares said. "It opened up my eyes and made me realize how well off we are here in the U.S. as compared to other small countries such as El Salvador."
DiLiegro used his summer to not only represent his country, but his religion as well. DiLiegro was named one of 12 members of the United States men's basketball team that competed at the 18th Maccabiah Games in Israel from July 12-23. The team was coached by University of Tennessee men's basketball head coach Bruce Pearl.
The Maccabiah Games, also referred to as the "Jewish Olympics," are held in Israel every four years and include the top Jewish athletes from around the world. The 18th Maccabiah Games attracted the largest Maccabiah attendance in history and became the third largest sporting event in the world with over 50 countries represented by 9,000 athletes. The U.S. alone brought about 1,000 participants, including Olympic athletes such as swimmers Dara Torres and Jason Lezak.
DiLiegro, whose mother, Cheryl, is Jewish, became the sixth UNH athlete to participate in the Maccabiah Games, including the first basketball player, when he traveled to Knoxville, Tenn., in June 2008 to partake in the two-a-day tryouts for four days. DiLiegro was one of about 40 players at the tryout, including the only college big man.
After the tryout, the 6-foot-9-inch, 240-pound center anxiously called U.S. assistant coach Harris Adler in early September to find out if there was any news on whether or not he had made the team. Adler told him not to worry and about a week later DiLiegro received a letter in the mail letting him know he had made the team.
"Dane is a big man who can really move his feet," Pearl said at the time. "He's willing to bang and score when called upon. He's a terrific young man who will represent his country and UNH extremely well when we travel to Israel this summer."
All athletes, coaches and trainers who participate in the Maccabiah Games must make a monetary commitment to the program. The obligation or "Yachad," meaning "together" in Hebrew, is shared among all participants, so DiLiegro needed to raise $3,300 in order to take part in the Games.
DiLiegro, whose roommates at the Games were former Stanford Cardinal and New York Knick Dan Grunfeld and former St. Mary's (Calif.) Gael Todd Golden, also joined Duke's Jon Scheyer and Arizona State's Derek Glasser on the roster, though they did not make the trip to Israel. By playing for the U.S. squad, DiLiegro joined some elite company, including Dolph Schayes, one of the 50 Greatest NBA players of all-time, Hall of Fame basketball coach Larry Brown, and Mark Spitz, who won a then-record seven gold medals at the 1972 Munich Olympic Games, an achievement surpassed only when Michael Phelps won his eighth gold medal of the 2008 Olympics.
With wins against Mexico (112-13), France (135-77) and Argentina (97-87), as well as a close loss to Russia (73-71), the U.S. started the Games by going 3-1 in round-robin play to grab their group's top seed and a spot in the semifinals. DiLiegro's tip-in with five seconds on the clock against Russia tied the game before the Russians scored with one second remaining to steal the victory and hand the Americans their only loss of the tournament.
DiLiegro led the U.S. to a 123-76 semifinal victory against Canada with a tournament-high 20 points and nine rebounds, setting up a championship-game showdown with 5-0 Israel, which knocked off Argentina, 110-53 in the other semifinal.
The U.S. trailed Israel by eight points with under two minutes to play in the contest, but overcame the deficit to force overtime and eventually pull out a 95-86 win to capture their second gold medal in the last three Games. The Americans won gold in 2001 with an 82-71 victory against Israel, and took home bronze in 2005, while Israel defeated France for the gold.
In its six contests at the Maccabiah Games, the U.S. outscored its opponents by an average of 35.8 points per game (104.8 to 69.0) en route to a 5-1 overall record. DiLiegro was solid throughout the tournament with three double-digit scoring performances en route to averaging 8.8 points and 5.2 rebounds per game.
"Just having the opportunity to be there was amazing," DiLiegro said. "Representing the country was a huge honor and winning the gold was the best sports experience of my life. We all ran out on the court and I jumped in the middle and everyone just went crazy."
DiLiegro and his squad did not just play basketball while in Israel. They soaked in the culture, history and religion that is a part of each one of them. DiLiegro prayed at the Western Wall next to Coach Pearl and visited other historical sites, such as the Dead Sea, the Sea of Galilee and Masada.
"Seeing historical places in America is nothing compared to Israel," explained DiLiegro. "In America everything is 200, 300 years old. Not in Israel. I saw things that were 2,000 years old from the biblical times. It was just unbelievable."
DiLiegro was also able to meet
basketball history in Schayes and Tal Brody, an American basketball
player, who played professionally in Israel and is regarded as a
national hero there.
"That was incredible," DiLiegro said.
DiLiegro also enjoyed being surrounded by people of the Jewish faith.
"I loved the fact that I was with a
lot of people of my kind," DiLiegro said. "Being Jewish, you're a
minority, so you tend to forget that everyone there is Jewish. I
thought that was cool."
Hoops wise, DiLiegro feels he improved while in Israel, learning to score different ways. He was also able to get a good feel for international basketball, which he says is a completely different game than the one we are used to in America.
"It's really a huge change that takes a sufficient amount of adjustment," DiLiegro said. "But I'm glad I experienced it now so I can get ready for the possible future."
Herrion says it is an advantage to play international basketball while still in school.
"When you're young and you have a chance to go play against older, experienced, veteran players, it can only make you better as a player and help you improve," Herrion said. "To do that during your college career is invaluable."
In the end, however, do not expect to see a different DiLiegro than the one you are used to.
"To be honest, now that I'm back here on home soil, I'm still the same good ol' Dane everyone knows," DiLiegro said. "Not much has changed."
Herrion, however, thinks at least one thing has changed.
"Anytime you experience another culture and another way of life, that's positive," Herrion said. "I think on the court, because of their basketball experience this past summer, all three of them have come back with much more confidence in their games this year."
And now, with their 2009-10 opener less than a month away, the three young men who spent part of their summer playing for country, will take their new-found confidence and play for the blue and white of UNH and the chance to bring the first America East championship in school history to Durham.