SAN ANTONIO - We laugh at the way Luke Schenscher talks. He laughs at us.
"Some Americans don’t realize they have an accent. They think they speak normally," Schenscher said.
"When I talk to my friends back home I start talking like the guys on the team. They think it’s hysterical."
We’re amused by the simplicity of life in the tiny farming community of Hope Forest, Australia, population 200. He’s bewildered by our problems.
"A lot of people were telling me Atlanta has the highest crime rate in America," he said.
We wonder how a gangly, 7-foot-1 kid who nearly quit the Georgia Tech team last year and averaged just 8.9 points and 6.4 rebounds a game this year can stand up to Connecticut All-American Emeka Okafor in tonight’s national championship game. Georgia Tech coach Paul Hewitt tells us.
"Luke has given pretty much every big guy he’s faced trouble all year," Hewitt said. "If we can keep him out of foul trouble, it’s going to be a great, great matchup."
The NCAA tournament has a way of finding the unlikeliest of stars, and they don’t come any more unlikely than Schenscher.
He doesn’t have the pedigree of fellow Australian import Andrew Gaze, who developed his game in the big city of Victoria and already had played on two Olympic teams before helping Seton Hall advance to the 1989 title game.
Hope Forest has two main roads and no stores. Schenscher grew up on his parents’ 5-acre farm, feeding the sheep, ducks and chickens.
(His father, Dean, is a sales representative for a paint company; his mother, Barbara, a customer service agent for a bus company.)
As for Schenscher’s game, well, he was tall.
"When I first started playing I wasn’t good," he said. "I was pretty terrible."
He developed some rudimentary skills during the three years he played on the Australian Institute of Sport club team.
By then he was 7 feet and dreaming about the NBA, so America was the place to be. He signed with Georgia Tech and quickly discovered how much he had to learn.
He averaged 4.8 points per game as a freshman in 2001-02 then regressed his sophomore year, his production off in scoring, rebounding and minutes played.
Schenscher considered a return home — "I’ve gotten extremely homesick a lot of times, especially last year when things were not going well for me," he said — but decided to stay at Georgia Tech and push himself harder than he had ever done before.
He gained weight — "I ate a lot of American fast food" — hit the weights and began his spring workouts a week earlier than the rest of the team.
He also made a promise to his girlfriend after center Chris Bosh bolted for the NBA.
"When Chris left my teammates were like, ‘What are we going to do now?’ " said Schenscher, who’s up to about 250 pounds from his freshman weight of 215. "I said to my girlfriend the one thing I wanted to do was look back on the season and I say I had no regrets. I wanted to know I did everything I could to help the team. If things didn’t work out at least I’d know I did my best."
From determination came discovery. His scoring and rebounding averages more than doubled, and he saved the best for last, collecting a double-double (19 points, 12 rebounds) in Georgia Tech’s 67-65 victory over Oklahoma State Saturday.
"He’s a great player," said OSU center Ivan McFarlin. "I tried to push him off the blocks, but he was awesome. Like a big, tall tree."
Schenscher moves uncommonly well for a man his size, but what’s striking about his game is his intelligence.
He doesn’t leave his feet on defense, he doesn’t try to force shots and he sets rock-solid picks that free up Georgia Tech’s scorers.
"Yeah, everybody calls me the Big Fundamental," Schenscher said. "That’s what they teach in Australia. We don’t have the athletes like Americans have, so we have to go about playing different ways."
Schenscher is still a favorite target of ACC fans — Duke’s Cameron Crazies taunt him with shouts of "Big Bird" — but he’s become a cult hero on Georgia Tech’s campus.
"Everybody loves Luke," said guard Will Bynum. "People walk around campus screaming his name."
A popular item in the campus store is a T-shirt with Schenscher’s likeness and the words, "Luke Schenscher has a posse."
"I don’t know why people would want my ugly face on a T-shirt," Schenscher said.
It would seem a mismatch tonight, Schenscher vs. Okafor, but in the Nov. 26 meeting between the two clubs Schenscher limited Okafor to nine points on 2-of-10 shooting.
Okafor’s back was hurting at the time, but Schenscher is not the same player, either.
"He’s got to be 8-foot-3 now," said UConn coach Jim Calhoun.
Many of the residents of Hope Forest will gather in the Schenscher home at midday Tuesday (they’re 15 hours ahead) to watch the game.
Their favorite son expects to put on a show for them.
"Most of my big games this year have been with my parents and family watching," he said.
We can’t see it. He might surprise us.