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September 19, 2007

Summer school: Elegar learns from the best

When someone asks Drexel big man Frank Elegar how he spent his summer, he won't have any problem reeling off a few highlights. Tops on the list will be a brief one-on-one lesson from Dwight Howard.

Elegar was one of six U.S. college players who played in the 2007 FIBA Americas Championship that ended earlier this month in Las Vegas. Maryland's Greivis Vasquez, Syracuse's Andy Rautins, UNC-Wilmington's Vladimir Kuljanin, George Mason's Jesus Urbina and Marist's Kaylen Gregory also participated in the event.

Elegar and Gregory played for the U.S. Virgin Islands. Vasquez and Urbina played for Venezuela, and Rautins (who suffered a torn ACL in the first game and will miss this season) and Kuljanin played for Canada in the 10-team international tournament that Howard and Team USA dominated.

During the latter stages of the U.S. team's 123-59 thrashing of the Virgin Islands, Howard pulled Elegar aside during a break and offered some much-appreciated tips.

"Howard was showing me how to post up," said the 6-foot-9 Elegar. "He said I needed to use a wider base and showed me how to use my arms to gain an edge. I won't forget that."

Elegar, who averaged a team-high 16.0 points and 6.7 rebounds a game last season as a junior at Drexel, played 21 minutes against the U.S. team. He scored one point and had four rebounds mixing it up with the likes of Howard, LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, Carmelo Anthony and Jason Kidd.

"Surprisingly, I wasn't star-struck," Elegar said. "I feel I have the tools and talent to play in the NBA, and I didn't want my emotions to get the best of me."

Vasquez, a 6-6 sophomore point guard, admits facing the U.S. team felt a bit surreal. Bryant guarded Vasquez for much of the game, won 112-69 by the Americans.

"I'm coming from college and the ACC, and all of a sudden I'm being guarded by Kobe," said Vasquez, who grew up in Caracas, Venezuela. "That was amazing. I couldn't believe I was playing against all these big-time guys. It was a dream come true."

Vasquez, who emerged as one of the ACC's most promising young players last season - ranking sixth in the league with 4.6 assists a game - certainly didn't play like someone who was star-struck. Vasquez was the most productive college player in the tournament, ranking second on the Venezuelan team in scoring (12.1 ppg) and assists (3.2 apg). Against the U.S. team, he hit three 3-pointers on his way to scoring a team-high 12 points. He added five rebounds and two steals.

"(Maryland) Coach (Gary) Williams told me to try and play hard and unselfish," Vasquez said. "He was really concerned with me having fun. Getting to guard guys like Kobe and Jason Kidd and making a layup over Howard was a lot of fun. I think I did a solid job, but I can do better. I can't wait to play for the national team again."

USA Basketball is hoping the 12 players who made up the American team feel similarly. LeBron, Kobe & Co. turned the tourney into a long line of highlight plays, racking up an average margin of victory of 40.9 points in their 10 wins. Their closest game: 91-76 over Argentina in the quarterfinals.

GROWING UP
Six U.S. college players participated in the 2007 FIBA Americas Championship, held Aug. 22-Sept. 2 in Las Vegas. Here's a look:
Name CountryKey stats
Frank Elegar, DrexelU.S. Virgin Islands 3.6 ppg, 5.3 rpg
Kaylen Gregory, MaristU.S. Virgin Islands 0.0 ppg, 1.0 rpg
Vladimir Kuljanin, UNC-WilmingtonCanada4.7 ppg, 2.5 rpg
Andy Rautins, SyracuseCanadaN/A*
Jesus Urbina, George MasonVenezuela2.4 ppg, 2.0 rpg
Greivis Vasquez, MarylandVenezuela12.1 ppg, 4.1 rpg, 3.2 apg
* - Suffered season-ending injury two minutes into first game
The convincing performance led many of the college players to believe the Americans will capture the gold medal at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing.

"I think (the U.S. team) learned how to play together," said Urbina, a 6-7 senior forward who started six games at George Mason last season. "I don't think they have had that in past years. If they play like they did and share the ball, they won't be beat."

Vasquez isn't so sure.

"Team USA is a great team and was definitely the best team in the tournament," Vasquez said. "But I really like Argentina (which was missing a handful of its top players, including San Antonio Spurs guard Manu Ginobili), too. They have some NBA guys, and a lot of their players have been together for 10 years.

"I also think the Spanish national team with Pau Gasol will be a contender. It's going to be interesting."

The college players and their coaches do agree on another topic. Each believes playing in the FIBA tourney will lead to personal improvement this season.

"I was playing against some of the best players in the world," said Urbina, who has already earned his undergraduate degree from George Mason. "I got to face the kind of players and styles that I had never faced before. The players were older and more experienced. That really helped me.

"In college, it's more of a learning experience. With the national team, they expect you to contribute immediately."

Urbina had to take a medical redshirt two season ago and underwent three surgeries due to injuries suffered during previous stints in international tournaments, but George Mason coach Jim Larranaga remains supportive of his players being involved on national teams. A handful of his previous players have played in international competitions.

"It certainly helps with their confidence," Larranaga said. "They not only get a chance to play the Americans and see the best this country has to offer, but they get to compare themsleves with the rest of the world. It offers them a wider perspective. It's very, very good for Jesus because he is trying to deal with those injuries."

Vasquez enters his second college season with more belief in his abilities and potential.

"It will definitely help me at Maryland," he said. "I was playing against guys who were older, stronger, bigger and better. Hanging with those guys helps your confidence. My confidence is up. It's high right now. I'm excited."

Andrew Skwara is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at askwara@rivals.com.



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