By Rob White
One of the best basketball leagues in the world is holding its championship, and ballers with MSU Denver connections are front and center.
Australia's National Basketball League 2019 Grand Final pits the Melbourne United against the Perth Wildcats in a five-game series that features three former Roadrunners: Mitch McCarron plays for Melbourne (pictured above, center), while Nick Kay (left) and Jesse Wagstaff (right) play for Perth.
“I love the fact that (MSU Denver) has a proud history of producing professional athletes that have long and successful careers, and it’s a credit to the school, program and coaching staff for their efforts and dedication,” said McCarron, who was the NCAA Division II Player of the Year for Metropolitan State University of Denver in the 2014-15 season.
“It’s bloody fantastic,” Wagstaff said of the MSU Denver influence in the NBL. “I think it’s a huge testament to the basketball program that (MSU Denver) has, and has had, and the people they have in positions of influence there.”
The best-of-five Grand Final tipped off last Friday, with Perth winning 81-71 on its home court. Game 2 was Saturday in Melbourne, where the United drubbed the Wildcats 92-74 to tie the series at 1-1. The series resumes in Perth on Friday, March 15 at 10:35 p.m. AEDT – that’s 5:35 a.m. for fans in Denver.
The Perth-Melbourne Grand Final features two evenly matched squads. Both teams were 18-10 in the NBL regular season, during which they split four games.
“We can expect a physical series,” McCarron said via email. “Perth is known for its aggressive and physical play, and I thought we were very good at matching that in previous games. Expect close games that come down to the final possessions to secure wins.”
Kay concurred: “It’ll be a physical and competitive battle. Both teams have endured the roller coaster of a tough league and have continued to grow. This final series is going to be a lot of executing the little things continuously and making the big plays when presented.”
Kay, a rugged 6-foot-9 forward for Perth, averaged 15.3 points and 9.9 rebounds this season and was named All-NBL first team. His teammate Wagstaff, a veteran 6-8 forward, averaged 5.7 points and 2.2 rebounds in a reserve role. McCarron, a 6-3 Melbourne guard, averaged 11.8 points, 5.3 rebounds and 3.0 assists this season.
Wagstaff played at MSU Denver in the late 2000s with current head coach Michael Bahl, who was an assistant coach when McCarron and Kay were Roadrunners, 2011 throuh 2015.
“It seems like just yesterday that I was playing with (Wagstaff) and coaching (McCarron) and (Kay),” Bahl said. “I couldn’t be prouder of them. They are still carrying the torch for MSU Denver and all of our past, current and future players. When I sit back and just process what these guys have done, it’s awesome to think about. And the thing that makes these guys so special is that not only are they great basketball players, but they are even better human beings.”
In fact, all three were stars off the court at MSU Denver: McCarron was a three-time Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference Academic Player of the Year, McCarron and Kay were both NCAA Elite 89 Award winners and all three Aussies were Academic All-Americans.
MSU Denver, which has the best all-time winning percentage in the history of NCAA Division II basketball, began recruiting players from Australia during the coaching tenure of Mike Dunlap, who took over the program in 1997 after coaching the NBL’s Adelaide 36ers.
Dunlap called on his Australian connections, building a juggernaut that won two national championships in nine seasons with a a combo of players from home and abroad.
Some 15 former Roadrunners have played in the NBL. Overall, there are 18 former Roadrunners who have played professionally overseas within the last year.
"(MSU Denver is) the reason I get to play professionally," Kay said in October 2018, when he and Wagstaff were in Denver with the Wildcats for an exhibition game against the Denver Nuggets. "It's the reason I have a job that I love. Without MSU Denver, I wouldn't be able to do that. But it's not just that, it's the other stuff. I learned the groundwork and foundations of life, really. You come (to MSU Denver), work hard every day. Preparing to win at basketball is like work."
Kay and McCarron were teammates who played at MSU Denver through the 2014-15 season. Kay ranks fifth in school history with 1,766 points and fourth with 863 rebounds. McCarron is sixth with 1,650 points and seventh with 378 assists. Wagstaff (who played through 2008-09) is ninth with 1,545 points and sixth with 750 rebounds.
Two other players who spent part of their college careers at MSU Denver are also in the series. David Barlow, a 6-7 forward, is a starter for Melbourne who averages 11.1 points and 4.4 rebounds. Sunday Dech is a 6-4 guard on the Perth roster.
While the Roadrunners’ connection to the NBL is strong, there is talent from around the globe in the league. The Perth roster includes former U.S. college stars Bryce Cotton (Providence College) and Terrico White (Mississippi), while starting alongside McCarron and Barlow for Melbourne are Josh Boone (Connecticut) and Casper Ware (Long Beach State).
“The reputation that the NBL is getting globally is always increasing,” Wagstaff said via email. “The caliber of players the NBL is producing and enjoys is arguably the best it has seen, and it continues to get better. I’m not sure if I could ‘rank’ it, but it is a high-quality league.”
Just how good is the NBL?
“It’s really hard to rank our league compared to others around the world, simply because I haven’t played in all of them,” said McCarron, who has also played in New Zealand, Spain and Slovenia. “I would argue, however, that our top four teams would compete with most European leagues. While we may not have budgets, height or athleticism like some of the big (European) clubs, I believe we have enough talent to give us a chance.”
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