A.W. Hamilton has been hard at work on the recruiting trail entering his second season as basketball coach at Eastern Kentucky University. He started by pulling players from conventional locations — around Kentucky and the Midwest. Recently, he tapped the unconventional — signing a player from England.
Tariq Balogun, a forward who stands 6-foot-10, originally hailed from London, before spending his final two years of high school at the Miller School in Charlottesville, Va.
England is not exactly a hotbed for basketball talent. Only three current NBA players were born in England, and only a handful of recognizable names have ever made it, most notably former University of Kentucky standout Kelenna Azubuike, Luol Deng and Ben Gordon and, going a little further back, Michael Olowokandi and James Donaldson.
Still, Hamilton saw plenty to like in his newest recruit.
“His desire to be a great basketball player,” Hamilton said. “Like, he wants to be really, really good and he’s only been playing for four or five years so everything is new to him and he’s really excited.
Balogun confirmed that in an interview with CBS19 in Charlottesville last winter.
“I started playing basketball when I was 14,” Balogun said. “I didn’t want to play at first, but my dad was like look how tall you are, you’re like 6-5 at 14.”
Once Balogun entered the sport, things started happening quickly. His team in London helped him make his way to the United States.
“They knew that for me to have a better chance at playing high-level basketball I should come to America and participate in high school,” Balogun said. “So they decided to help me look for schools and stuff, and then eventually found schools so everything else came from that.”
Balogun said he anticipated a culture shock in moving from one of the biggest cities on Earth to a town of 15,000 in eastern Virginia, but the reality was not that difficult.
“I expected a difference,” Balogun said. “I was prepared, to know that it was going be very quiet, not a lot of people compared to London which is very energetic so I kind of prepared myself for that because I knew that was what I was going into.”
Balogun played one season at Walsingham Academy in Williamsburg, Va., before playing against, and losing to, the Miller School convinced him to transfer there.
“I felt like it was a place where I could develop my game further,” he said.
Balogun’s inexperience using his hands for a sport was apparent when he got to Miller, as he had previously been a soccer player, but the school’s basketball coach, Danny Manuel, said that his growth while at the school was exponential.
“They’re dropping him dimes and he’d drop it,” Manuel said. “It was just working on catching things every day, from tennis balls to footballs to medicine balls, just working on hand-eye coordination and he’s really come along.”
Manuel also said that Balogun got his academics in order while at the school and is one of the more interesting personalities that has come through the Miller program.
“He fit right in,” Manuel said. “Really open-minded kid, has a great sense of humor and just interested in, I don’t want to say weird things, but he’ll talk to you for hours about outer space.”
It was at Miller that the EKU coaching staff first found out about Balogun, who averaged 14 points and seven assists per game for the school. Hamilton said the young big man immediately intrigued the Colonels’ coaching staff.
“My assistant coach Mike Allen watched him all summer,” Hamilton said. “Both my assistants went down there multiple times this past year and watched him. We followed him. We didn’t think we had a chance to get him, we thought he would end up at a high-major school. My staff, they just hung in there with him and then the chips fell where they did and we kind of got lucky and got him.”
Balogun chose the Colonels over scholarship offers from Old Dominion, North Texas and Morgan State, among others.
Balogun joins an EKU 2019 signing class that also includes Ty Taylor (Kansas City, Mo.), Curt Lewis (Valley High School and Aspire Academy in Louisville), Russhard Cruickshank (Milwaukee, Wis.) and Michael Moreno (Scott County).
“I think I’m going to bring energy,” Balogun said. “A motor. I’m able to impact the floor both offensively and defensively, I’m able to shoot the ball well, run the floor well, finish. I’m also able to protect the paint and then also guard.”
Balogun said that he hopes to compete for a starting position right from the beginning.
“If somebody asked me who’s gonna be our starting lineup, I’d have no idea,” said Hamilton, whose first Colonels squad finished 13-18 overall and 6-12 in the Ohio Valley Conference. “And that’s a good problem. We’ve put together a really good recruiting class. We had a really good recruiting class last year when I got here and then we’ve got some guys returning that we’re excited about.”