Husker trades soccer cleats for high tops

Aleks Maric joins growing group of Australian players finding success in NCAA basketball
Sunday, January 29, 2006 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 2:26 p.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 1, 2008

LINCOLN, Neb. — College basketball was the furthest thing from Aleks Maric’s mind growing up in Sydney, Australia.

He played competitive soccer, and rugby, one of his recreational sports, was the country’s dominant sport.

That all changed when Nebraska’s 6-foot-11 center outgrew his favorite sport as a teenager, forcing a change from soccer to basketball.

“I got too tall and couldn’t find any soccer boots big enough for me,” said Maric, who wears a size 17 shoe. “I love the sport (basketball), I love everything about it, but I still watch soccer.”

As Maric’s game developed, he earned his way onto the Australian national team playing alongside Andrew Bogut, who was the first pick in the NBA draft last season after playing two years at Utah.

Maric said playing against each other during practices helped them elevate their games to a higher level.

Maric, who started playing basketball in 2000, came to America in 2003 to play for Life Center, a prep school in New Jersey, before joining the Huskers last year as a freshman. Despite his inexperience, Maric averaged eight points and led the team in rebounding with 6.3 rebounds per game, a total that ranked 11th in the Big 12 Conference.

Bogut and Maric still talk to each other weekly on the phone, and their achievements on the hardwood have become part of a handful of Australian success stories making their way into the college basketball landscape.

“He (Bogut) put us on the map. We have a better reputation now,” Maric said. “There’s a lot of players coming to college, obviously me, but Aaron Bruce and there’s a guy at Arizona (Daniel Dillon), people everywhere you know what I mean. It makes the game more global.”

Bruce earned Big 12 freshman of the year honors last season, leading all freshman in the nation in scoring at 18.2 points per game.

Maric had eight points, seven rebounds and three blocks against the Tigers on Saturday and is having another solid season for the Huskers this year, averaging over eight points and six rebounds.

Maric still remembers a time when soccer and a life in Australia seemed to be his future. But he’s not regretting life in Lincoln and his future basketball prospects in America, as unlikely as it appeared years ago.

“I never imagined it,” Maric said. “It’s basically a dream come true. All I knew about America was L.A., Hollywood and New York. I didn’t know anything about Nebraska or where it was. I was hoping for something near the ocean, but it’s far from the ocean.”

GUESS WHO’S BACK: The guessing game of when Jason Horton would return to the starting lineup came to an end against Nebraska last night.

Horton, the Tigers’ sophomore point guard, hadn’t started since the Dec. 21 debacle against Illinois and was benched the following game against Eastern Illinois for what coach Quin Snyder referred to as failing to meet team standards.

After the benching, Snyder started using Horton off the bench, but was adamant that using him in that role wasn’t a continuation of disciplinary measures but rather a way to spark the Tigers.

It worked, at least for a little while.

The Tigers rattled off five-straight wins since the Illinois game and won three of their first four conference games.

A “if it’s not broke don’t fix it” mentality seemed to justify Horton’s new role, even though Marcus Watkins and Glen Dandridge hadn’t exactly sparkled in their stints as starters replacing Horton.

After losing two-straight conference games to Kansas State and Iowa State, Snyder started his once-maligned point guard, but the Tigers skidded to a 3-4 conference mark.

After the 65-52 loss, Horton said returning to the starting lineup wasn’t a big priority for him.

“Man, I don’t care nothing about that,” he said. “Starting is cool, but all I care about is winning. It don’t matter if I start the game or come off the bench.”

After experiencing both alternatives, Horton said that starting isn’t necessarily better than coming off the bench.

“It’s a little bit easier (to get into a groove early starting). But I think coming off the bench has its advantages too. You see what’s going on before you get out there, and you know what to expect. When you start, you just have to feel your way through.

“But for the most part, it’s just like I’ve been starting because I’ve been playing so many minutes.”

Horton finished with five points on 2-of-4 shooting with three assists to one turnover in 37 minutes. In his past eight games off the bench, Horton averaged 24 minutes a game.

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