Located in Northern Europe, bordering the Baltic Sea and Gulf of Finland, lies the city of Tallinn, capital of the small country of Estonia, which has a population of just 1.325 million. Next door? Russia.
Here is where Maik Kotsar grew up.
Soon his advanced basketball skills allowed him to represent his country at the international level for Estonia’s U18 national team at the 2014 FIBA European Championships.
The 6-foot-10 Kotsar caught the attention of American coaches, and he enrolled at Sunrise Christian Academy in Wichita, Kansas. He had his first contact with Frank Martin and the Gamecocks in February.
Kotsar took an official visit to USC early last March, liked what he saw with the program (even though the Gamecocks lost to Georgia) and committed to the Gamecocks a few days later.
Kotsar is currently one of two players from Estonia playing major college basketball in the United States. The other is 6-foot-10 junior forward Rauno Nurger of Wichita State, who also attended Sunrise Christian Academy.
“It was awesome knowing such a huge program was coming to recruit me,” Kotsar told reporters Wednesday. “Of course, we haven’t made the NCAA Tournament for a while, but with a coach like Frank Martin, I just saw the future of the program and decided to come here.”
Even though Kotsar has played just nine games for the Gamecocks, Martin has praised his high basketball IQ on multiple occasions.
And he’s a pretty decent shooter too. Kotsar connected on 25-of-33 shot attempts during a recent four-game stretch (SC State, Michigan, Syracuse, Vermont) and despite making just 4-of-11 shots combined against FIU and Seton Hall, he enters Saturday afternoon’s road test at South Florida (1 p.m., CBS Sports Network) with a 66.0 shooting percentage (35-53) while averaging 8.6 points and 4.4 rebounds per game in 22.3 minutes.
Kotsar’s best game may have come against Syracuse on Nov. 26 when he scored a career-high 16 points on 7-of-9 shooting in 30 minutes. He added two steals and two rebounds.
Quickly earning Martin’s trust (a very difficult thing for a true freshman), Kotsar has started each of USC’s first nine games.
“Of course, I didn’t expect to start right away, but I just kept doing my thing and working hard,” Kotsar said. “It went from there. I just try to make smart decisions and stay cool during the game and think everything through.”
Kotsar, a southpaw, is so accurate shooting the basketball, especially from the perimeter, Martin has experimented with him at the three (wing) spot. In fact, one of his two baskets Monday night at Madison Square Garden was a jumper from the foul line extended.
“I actually prefer to play at the four (power forward) than the three (right now)”, Kotsar said. “Because of my previous injuries (shoulder) and the very fast growth spurt I had, it made me slower and not as efficient for the three. In the future, I want to get better at ball handling, get my speed up, become more physical and eventually start at the three.”
One area Kotsar acknowledges he needs to improve – learning to defend without fouling. Through nine games, he is second on the Gamecocks in personal fouls with 26, an average of nearly three per game.
“I’ve been in foul trouble for a lot of the games, so clearly I need to get better at that,” Kotsar said. “In Europe, they allow more physical play during the games. I need to adjust to that.”
Like many European players, Kotsar had to adjust to the North American style of basketball, which is more physical and athletic than across the ocean.
“The athleticism and physicality of the game is totally different in Division I than what I’m used to,” Kotsar said. “So, I still need to get a lot better at that.”