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Aussie coaching icon Marty Clarke brings Saint Mary's a wealth of experience

Marty Clarke is a name that probably doesn't resonate much outside of Australian basketball and a private college in Moraga, California.

But it should.

Because if you've ever looked at the Australian players in the NBA and wondered about their path to the peak of their profession, the 49-year-old associate head coach at Saint Mary's College is as big a reason as any for the vast majority of them.

Patty Mills, Matthew Dellavedova, Joe Ingles, Aron Baynes, Dante Exum, Andrew Bogut and Ben Simmons all attended the Australian Institute of Sport, now known as Basketball Australia's Centre of Excellence, at one time or another.

Indeed, Milwaukee Bucks rookie Thon Maker is the lone Aussie in the NBA not to have spent any time at the purpose-built facility in Canberra (excluding Kyrie Irving, who was born in Melbourne but grew up in the United States).

With the madness of March and the NCAA tournament beginning this week, 21 Australians across 14 teams, according to ESPN Stats & Info, will be competing for college basketball glory -- including seven at Saint Mary's, which faces Virginia Commonwealth on Thursday (7:20 p.m. ET) in first-round action -- a not insignificant number considering the relatively small population of the country.

Some, including Kentucky's Isaac Humphries, Miami's Dejan Vasiljevic, and Winthrop's Xavier Cooks, will not only have dreams of excelling on the biggest stage of their burgeoning careers, but also of plying their trade professionally and even representing Australia in future Olympics.

But their path to future success was laid out many years before they even had an inkling of their own individual hoop dreams.

The Australian Institute of Sport basketball program was established in 1980 as part of a wider push to regenerate the success of Australia's athletics after the national embarrassment of failing to win a gold medal at the 1976 Montreal Olympics.

And while the Tute -- as it was lovingly known in Aussie sporting circles -- helped advance a number of elite players, Chicago Bulls center Luc Longley among them, it wasn't until Clarke took the reins of the program that it really began a production line of superlative talent.

Appointed head coach in 2003 after a four-year apprenticeship as an assistant (and spending time there as a player in the mid '80s), Clarke had but one mission in mind during a tenure that would last eight seasons: Produce good young players who would represent their country, be that on the collegiate, professional or global stage.

And for that, he needed to look into a crystal ball that wasn't always crystal clear.

"Look at a Joe Ingles, at 16 or 17, still growing into his body. What might he look like in 10 years' time?" Clarke said of a player who now is in his third season with the Utah Jazz. "Guys like Andrew Bogut, who hadn't even represented his state? It's a little bit different to picking players when the expectation is to win now."

As Clarke emphatically states, it was more about developing the individual, with no magic formula, and having to experiment to find what works for each player. And tied to that was teaching those same young, sometimes emotional, players how to win. Those two things didn't always go hand in glove.

"Do you want to be a professional player or not?"

The question took the teenage Dellavedova aback.

He had gone to Clarke requesting time off from the Institute of Sport to go watch his beloved Collingwood Magpies play in the Australian Football League. Dellavedova would have to miss a compulsory training and weights session, but he figured one weekend off couldn't hurt.

But Clarke was having none of it. He asked the young guard why he was going to pay to watch Collingwood play when he was trying to be a professional himself.

It was a wake-up call, making Dellavedova realize the price he would have to pay and the sacrifices he would have to make if he wanted to maximize his talents.

"I was like 'OK, I guess I'm staying for training on Saturday!'" Dellavedova said with a laugh.

Dellavedova's three years at the Tute were just as crucial to his development as any other time in his career, including his four years at St. Mary's. Even now, the feisty Bucks playmaker says there are times he still has Clarke in the back of his head when it comes to making decisions, both on and off the court.

They keep in touch, and the fourth-year pro still values the perspective Clarke provides, especially now that the conversations are had at a moderate decibel level, which wasn't always the case when it was a coach-student relationship.

Renowned for his ability to deliver a fierce, well-timed volley of critical appraisal, Clarke spared nobody in his time at the Tute.

"Oh, everyone was on the end of a few of those sprays," Dellavedova said. "Sometimes you thought they weren't deserved, but they always gave you something to think about."

Looking back, Ingles, now 29, said he can understand why Clarke was on their backs so much.

"He was very intense, and he had to be," said Ingles, who attended the Institute in 2005 and '06. "We were at that age when we were starting to look at college and being a professional, and he was -- and still is I think -- the best man in Australia for that job."

The current head coach of the Centre of Excellence is Adam Caporn, who previously played at Saint Mary's and was an assistant for the Gaels alongside Clarke on head coach Randy Bennett's staff for a year.

Having played under both men, Dellavedova has no doubt about the legacy Clarke created and that Caporn continues to this day.

"I don't really know what people think in terms of who had the most impact, but I know for me, definitely the way he's viewed in the Boomers' [Australia's national team] eyes is very high," Dellavedova said of Clarke.

Despite being a major factor in producing the finest talent Australian basketball has yet seen, Clarke, who also coached the Adelaide 36ers in the National Basketball League for three years before landing at Saint Mary's, remains unruffled by any notion of his place in history. The man from the adorably named town of Penguin in Tasmania wryly notes that, in the end, the time you spend in any one place is fleeting and it never takes long for a generational gap to appear.

Indeed, in his own mind, he's now recruiting kids to Saint Mary's, where he's been on the staff for four seasons, who "probably don't have a clue about where I was previously."

Clarke thinks with the Institute changing its name to the Centre of Excellence, his achievements there will lose their resonance over time. But it's hard to imagine the sight of his protégés taking center stage for the Boomers at the 2016 Rio Olympics will be forgotten any time soon.

All but two players on that team -- Chris Goulding and naturalized Australian Kevin Lisch -- were part of the Institute of Sport program (although Goulding was a member of the Clarke-coached squad at the 2007 FIBA U19 World Championship).

"The 2016 and 2020 Olympics was what I was focused on, always had an eye towards that," Clarke said. "And I think we had a pretty good crop."

And while the landscape for young Australian players is also a little different now, with more and more going to U.S. high schools, Clarke resoundingly rejects the notion of that pathway providing any more opportunity than that of the Centre of Excellence.

"You have to get that opportunity to be on the court in situations where big decisions are being made and taking big shots," Clarke said. "You can't do that sitting on the bench."

Clarke's Institute teams would practice three times a day, six days a week, with games against grown men in a tough, professional league (the South East Australian Basketball League) thrown in for good measure. It was a unique situation for players and coaches alike.

"I had to drive the bus, make the sandwiches, cook the pasta, tape their ankles, and in between that, you had to yell at them, tell them they were good," Clarke said.

"You had to deal with off-court issues -- they had problems at home, or they broke up with their girlfriend or their cat died. It was just a totally different coaching environment."

While he has fond memories of the fierce practice sessions at the Tute, Clarke's favorite moments now are simply when one of "the guys" calls. It happens way more than he ever expected, and it's not just the NBA successes. The players who weren't the elite of the elite and are in non-basketball careers still call, still seek Clarke's advice.

With Clarke as an assistant coach on Australia's 2012 Olympic team, his Institute players who made that squad were taken by how their relationship had evolved.

"He wasn't that big, scary old man that was yelling at us every day; he was more of a friend and still a mentor," said Ingles, who tries to meet with Clarke whenever the Jazz play the Warriors in Oakland, about half-hour's drive from the Saint Mary's campus. "It's a credit to him. I've been coached by a lot of people and I don't talk to a lot of them as well. He's someone I'll always try to catch up with."

Even allowing for the fearsome verbal barrages he was occasionally the target of, Dellavedova has nothing but fond memories his time with Clarke at the Institute.

And he still holds to one piece of advice in particular.

"Marty always told us we could have a girlfriend as long as she rebounds for you," Dellavedova said, grinning. "It's good advice. My fiancée rebounds for me now."