The NCAA’s annual collegiate basketball tournament, known as March Madness, is one of America’s most exciting and popular sports competitions. While the majority of participating student-athletes are American, international students also featured prominently in this year’s tournament, including a strong showing of students from the Asia Pacific. Twenty-six international students from Asia Pacific countries are on the rosters of the 132 teams making up the field for the men’s and women’s tournaments, including 19 men and 7 women.
The majority of the student-athletes hailing from across the Pacific are Australian, with 21 in total. The others come from New Zealand, Japan, and India. Of the 21 Australians athletes, eight were starters for their team. The Boise State men’s team, losers by just one point to Dayton in the play-in round, had three Australians in their starting line-up. Albany, who fell to Oklahoma in the round of 64, had four Australians on its roster, three of whom were starters, including two brothers, Samuel and Mike Rowley.
Much of the magic of March Madness comes from miraculous stories of individual and team heroics—and international students have been at the center of this. Peter Hooley, the other Australian starter on Albany’s squad, played a critical role in his team reaching the tournament in the first place. Trailing by two with seconds left against Stony Brook in the America East Title game, with a tournament bid on the line, Hooley hit a buzzer-beater three point shot to send Albany to the tournament. Most inspirational about the story was that Hooley recently lost his mother to cancer, and had taken an extended leave in January to return to Australia.
At other key junctures, Asia Pacific players also found themselves at the crux of their team’s fight to progress through the tournament. With five seconds left to play in the Elite Eight matchup versus the Michigan State Spartans, Louisville player Mangok Mathiang, also Australian, found himself at the free throw line, down one point and with his team’s Final Four aspirations on the line. Mathiang, despite being a shaky at the line, came through for his team and made the first of two nervous free throws, forcing overtime. His team later lost in overtime, but not before making Michigan State work for it.
Along with Baylor women’s freshman guard, Kristy Wallace of Australia, whose tournament run also lasted to the Elite Eight round, Mathiang of Louisville advanced the farthest of any Asia Pacific player in the 2015 tournament.
As long as the US maintains a robust student exchange with Asian countries, and with Australia in particular, expect international students from the region to continue to contribute to the excitement of March Madness and collegiate athletics.
Chad Westra is a Research Intern at the East-West Center and an undergraduate student at Calvin College. Grace Ruch is the Projects & Outreach coordinator at the East-West Center in Washington and an alumna of Michigan State University.