Outsiders once again help N.C. State thrive

Eastern European natives Evtimov, Atsur are latest

College basketball

February 05, 2006|By PAUL MCMULLEN | PAUL MCMULLEN,SUN REPORTER

RALEIGH, N.C. -- Everett Case, who put North Carolina State basketball on the map after World War II, was from Indiana.

David Thompson, the greatest player in the history of the Wolfpack - and perhaps all of the Atlantic Coast Conference - came out of the Tobacco Road metropolis of Boiling Springs.

Jim Valvano, a wise guy from Queens, guided State's second NCAA title.

And now, for something completely different, the Wolfpack has a Top 25 team with an Eastern European flavor.

Senior forward Ilian Evtimov, probably as experienced as any player in the ACC and possibly the widest traveled, spent most of his adolescence in France but was born in Bulgaria. Junior guard Engin Atsur is from Turkey, which provides Bulgaria with its southeastern border.

"People overseas kind of know what's going on on the other side of the world," Atsur said. "Some in the U.S. are kind of limited in that regard, but our teammates found us interesting. They wanted to know why we came here, and what kind of countries we live in. It's been a different experience for them, and for us, too."

Evtimov is the only player who has started every game for N.C. State, which takes a 17-4 record and 6-2 ACC mark into today's game against Maryland at the RBC Center. He averages 11.4 points and 3.9 rebounds.

Atsur leads the Wolfpack in minutes played, assists and steals. He's good for 11.0 points and 3.0 rebounds per game. His three-point percentage of .426 would rank second in the ACC if he had enough successful attempts, which he doesn't on a balanced outfit that has seven players averaging between 12.9 and 7.5 points.

N.C. State is headed to its fifth straight NCAA tournament. That run coincided with Evtimov's arrival in the 2001-02 season. He and Atsur helped the Wolfpack beat Connecticut and reach the Sweet 16 last year, and they are hoping for something more this time.

Foreign imports have been common in college basketball's showroom since the 1980s. Argentina is the reigning Olympic champion, and Atsur and Evtimov are two more examples that it's a global game. Both of their fathers played in Europe, and both are following a trail blazed by older brothers.

Atsur is from Istanbul, a city of 9 million where East meets West, and the hoops heritage includes Hedo Turkoglu and Mehmet Okur. Emre, Atsur's brother, played at Western Carolina. Engin was first spotted on an online service by N.C. State assistant coach Mark Phelps, who certified his potential at the 2003 world junior championships.

Evtimov's father was one of Bulgaria's most honored players in the 1980s, but played for pay in France.

"He got a contract in Greece when I was 5," Evtimov said. "Then he signed with a team in France, near the Alps. Then it was one an hour outside Lyon, then another one close to Paris. After that, it was in the west, near the [Atlantic] coast, then back to Lyon, then in the south, near the Pyrenees, then back to Lyon one more time."

Evtimov is conversant in four languages, Bulgarian, English, French and Spanish. His brother Vasco played for, of all teams, North Carolina, and encouraged his younger brother to follow him to America. Evtimov went to a high school on Long Island and two in Winston-Salem before settling here.

If it seems as if Evtimov has been around forever, that's because of a medical redshirt year in 2002-03, when he tore an anterior cruciate ligament in an exhibition.

He has dual citizenship but has cast his international lot with France. Tony Parker in uniform would enhance Evtimov's chances of playing in the Beijing Olympics.

Coach Herb Sendek won't make generalizations about whether his fundamentally sound Europeans are better suited to his variation of the Princeton offense, but Evtimov in particular was made for the Wolfpack. He's 6 feet 8 and 222 pounds but is comfortable working the perimeter, as he's made 40.8 percent of his threes.

"This offense requires great three-point shooting and passing," Atsur said. "Ilian has all of that."

Atsur has seen N.C. State forward Andrew Brackman pitch for the Wolfpack baseball team but remains clueless about the game. Sendek doesn't wear his Pittsburgh roots as loudly as Wake Forest's Skip Prosser, but his terminology is peppered with sports cliches that after three years still have Atsur scratching his head.

"I pass the ball to a teammate, and Coach thought it was unnecessary," Atsur said. "Coach ask, `What is he going to do with the ball - is he going to get a first down?' I had no idea what he was talking about. Charlie Rozanski, our trainer, had to explain what he meant."

Leading up to Super Bowl Sunday, Atsur and Evtimov prepared to argue the merits of soccer, what their homelands consider the real football.

While Atsur can blend into a small but active group of Turkish students on campus and Evtimov knows where to find Greek gyros and moussaka in the Research Triangle, they've become a part of Tobacco Road. The cultural exchange has worked both ways.

"At one team meal, I ordered snails as an appetizer," Evtimov said. "That's part of French cuisine. The guys couldn't believe what I ordered, but I got a few to try them. They had to admit they were good."

paul.mcmullen@baltsun.com

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