As is the case at this time of the year, the entire nation is rapt in anticipation for the Final Four. The Virginia Cavaliers make their return to the final weekend of play for the first time since 1984, but this time the buzz around its semifinal match-ups has gone international, as Virginia’s diverse roster features players from New Zealand, Australia, Italy, Argentina, and Guinea.
Virginia’s Francesco “Frankie” Badocchi is one of the first two Italian players to play in the Final Four, with Texas Tech’s Davide Moretti being the other. Mamadi Diakite — who hit the game-tying shot against Purdue to keep the Hoos’ tournament hopes alive — is the talk of his native Guinea. Freshman Francisco Caffaro, who is redshirting this season for the Cavaliers, represented his home country of Argentina in the FIBA U18 Americas Championship, while fellow first year Kody Stattmann played for Australia’s U17 team. Senior big man Jack Salt is finishing up his final season at UVA after coming to Charlottesville from New Zealand.
Like Moretti and Badocchi, Diakite and Caffaro are also the first for their respective countries to play in a Final Four. Caffaro has been getting texts and messages from back home celebrating the achievement. “Even though I’m not playing and stuff,” Caffaro said during one of the team’s media sessions, “just being part of the team, I’m the first Argentinian to be, like, in this situation so that’s pretty big, and a lot of people from the national team and stuff texted me.”
The reaction in Diakite’s hometown of Conakry, Guinea, has been enthusiastic to say the least. “My cousins told me that if I go back home right now, the whole population would come welcome me home,” Diakite said.
Having the opportunity to represent his home country is a huge thing for the springy big man. “It means a lot to me,” Diakite said of being the first Guinean player to reach a Final Four. “Trying to show them that anything is possible. Coming from playing soccer, switching up to basketball and being able to prove that I can be on the big stage and probably win the whole thing. That means a lot to me.”
The international flavor in Virginia’s locker room has made it easier for new players to mesh into the squad. “It’s good because the team is used to having people from other sides, so it’s much easier to integrate and be part of the team,” Caffaro said on Thursday. “I think it was better to have people from the other countries.”
Badocchi agreed. “I feel like it’s more welcoming because coming here, I guess a third of the team is from around the world and there’s definitely a culture shock when you come in here. Having people around that have another culture shock, too, is easier to get adjusted to it.”
Virginia head coach Tony Bennett played in New Zealand and Australia after his NBA days and begun his coaching career abroad. “I think guys learn so much, how to interact with each other from different cultures,” Bennett said of his roster. “You learn to appreciate and respect one another, and I think that’s really great for our team and these young men when they’re done with it.”
The differences in culture have helped keep things light in the locker room for the Cavaliers as the players like to rib each other for food preferences and slang. Badocchi hasn’t “adjusted” to American food yet, and at the three year mark in the States, he’s not sure it’ll happen. Instead, Badocchi prefers to cook for himself.
“He makes fun of our food, mostly,” redshirt sophomore Jay Huff said of Badocchi. “He doesn’t like a lot of our food. He’s kind of picky.”
“It’s fun,” Ty Jerome said of the varying backgrounds in the Wahoo locker room. “It makes our team that much more diverse and it’s fun to hear about different cultures and hear what different people call different things.” Jerome thinks Stattmann and Salt’s use of “have a shower” instead of “take a shower” is hysterical.
For Stattmann it’s the use of words like y’all. “With Kody, listening to him say the word ‘y’all’ is hilarious,” Huff stated. “He’s like, ‘yaaaaawwl’.” Huff, from Durham, North Carolina, says he’s constantly having to teach Badocchi the endless slang he uses.
Caffaro says he hasn’t started using many of the American vernacular, though points out ‘y’all’ and ‘wildin’ as ones he frequently hears in the locker room that stand out for him. Huff, however, has found himself saying some of the phrases that his international teammates use. “Like if someone was going to say, ‘that’s like weird as heck’ or something like that, Kody [Stattmann] will just say ‘weird as’ and cut it off there. I’ve kind of picked up on myself saying it now and again — not that much — but it’s kind of worked its way into my vocabulary.”
Despite potential for communication issues, the players say that’s never translated onto the court. Diakite redshirted his first season with the Cavaliers as the coaching staff wanted him to improve his strength, work on developing his game, and give the French speaker a chance to get adjusted.
“It doesn’t matter what country you’re from,” Salt stated. “Coach recruits guys with good values and when you come to Virginia, you become a better person on top of that. It doesn’t matter where anyone is from, but in saying that, it’s awesome to have more international guys here. It just builds the fun team chemistry.”
Virginia will lay it all on the line Saturday night as the Cavaliers take on Auburn for a chance at the coveted NCAA championship trophy. Tip time is set for 6:09pm EST.