A little over three years ago when Alex Loughton and his dad left their home in Perth, Australia, to visit college campuses in the states, it was during the month of March, a time when much of the country was consumed with what is known as March Madness. Loughton, fresh from his own successes in Australian league play, admittedly had never heard about the NCAA basketball tournament. “It was new to us, but we sort of got caught up in it because we were traveling around the nation, hearing it from all different angles.”
|Big Man On Campus
CAA Player of the Year Alex Loughton delivers the thunder from Down Under
By Steve Daniel
Three seasons later with the Monarchs, he now knows firsthand what the madness is all about, having led Old Dominion to the 2005 NCAA tournament and a near first-round upset of eventual Final Four participant Michigan State. And now that he’s had a taste, he’s eager to experience it once again in his senior year with hopes of extending the madness a bit longer the second time around.
“It’s a great experience you don’t get anywhere else in the world,” he said. “It really does capture the essence of what it’s all about the competition, the rivalries, the upsets.”
With everyone back next season, save for Kiah Thomas, Loughton believes the Monarchs have a chance to make it to the Sweet 16, and he’s planning to give 110 percent and more to help improve their odds.
“I’m really proud of all the guys,” Loughton said, looking back on the 2004-05 season. “We got where we got because of everyone; it wasn’t because of any individual performances. Everyone contributed to the overall result, which I thought was really encouraging.
“It will be a tough task (to repeat as CAA champs), but I think we have the right guys to win it again. We just have to have the same mentality we had last season of working hard and trusting what the coaches put in place.”
At 6-9, 250 pounds, Loughton has been an imposing presence at the forward and center positions for ODU. He averaged 14.1 points and 8.2 rebounds his junior year, and his 45 points against Charlotte early in his sophomore year were the most scored by a Division I player that season.
Not bad for a guy who often has to match up against taller opponents and whose teammates teasingly call Fruit Bowl on occasion because he bruises easily.
They need not worry about bruises to his ego, however. Loughton doesn’t have much of one, despite the numbers he’s put up and the many accolades he’s received. For the past season alone, he was selected as preseason CAA Player of the Year, CAA Player of the Year, MVP of the CAA Tournament and State Player of the Year.
Oh, and he also was named to the first team College Sports Information Directors of America District III All-Academic squad and earned honorable mention All-America honors from the Associated Press and Basketball Times. Loughton, who carries a 3.42 grade point average in business marketing, is truly the quintessential student-athlete.
His obvious skills on the court and his achievement in the classroom aside, Loughton’s coach, Blaine Taylor, believes the youngster’s greatest strengths run a bit deeper. “Alex is a really caring, discerning, disciplined individual, and I think if you go back to his family roots, that’s where it all starts. The other part of it is his good-natured approach to others, which goes back to the Australian culture.”
When talking about Loughton, Taylor often refers to what he terms his “sixth sense about people and things.”
“I remember at one of our Hoops Club golf tournaments, there was this guy who was scrambling to get the food ready and the banners put up. It had been a long day for us, but Alex sees him and walks over and asks, ‘Can I give you a hand?’ The guy couldn’t believe it.”
Loughton, Taylor says, didn’t really need the trademark talk he gives the team at the start of each season. “Alex personifies one of the things I tell players in our first meeting: that we expect you to show up and try hard. To me, that means you’re on time, you’re ready, you’ve got a great attitude, you’re ready to learn, you’re determined to get better. And I tell them they’ve got to do that in the classroom, socially, in the community and on campus as well. If you do, you’re going to have results.”
Speaking of results, ODU’s 2004-05 season was one for the books. It marked the first time the men had made it into the NCAA tournament since 1997; it featured two wins over rival VCU, the first at home which snapped a 10-game losing streak against the Rams, and the second in Richmond, a thrilling overtime victory in the CAA title game; and it was a season in which the Monarchs posted 28 wins, the most ever by an ODU men’s team.
With the program on an upswing, and with the return of Loughton and Isaiah Hunter for their junior year, along with rising sophomores Arnaud Dahi and Valdas Vasylius, the 2004-05 season did, indeed, look promising.
The Monarchs started out of the gate fast, winning their first four games, but then hit a roadblock at a tournament in Texas, a 71-67 loss to Texas A&M Corpus Christi.
“I remember coach kicking this white board at Corpus Christi and breaking it, basically smashing it to pieces, after the game,” Loughton recalls. “That was kind of like the low point. I think that stood out in my mind as motivation to not ever let a game slip like that again. We took a lot of maturity from that game, even though we lost.”
Loughton’s maturity level actually was tested early in his ODU career. He was recruited by then assistant coach Larry Krystkowiak on the recommendation of his former Chicago Bulls teammate Luc Longley, who was a part owner of the Australian pro team Perth Wildcats at the time. But Krystkowiak unexpectedly resigned just weeks before the start of Loughton’s freshman year. Then, former Monarch great and assistant coach Kenny Gattison ’86 left at the end of of Loughton’s freshman season to take a job on the New Orleans Hornets coaching staff.
Having those two big men on Taylor’s staff, two guys who had NBA experience playing his position, had tipped the scales in Loughton’s decision to attend Old Dominion. And while it was a major disappointment when they left the program, Loughton accepted their departures with his “everything happens for a reason” philosophy.
“Kenny’s biggest advice was to ‘slow down,’” Loughton said with a laugh, affecting Gattison’s measured, Southern drawl. “‘What you’ve got to do is slow down.’ He just had that extra perspective to do things right and at the right pace.”
Despite the loss of these mentors, Loughton has made the most of his learning opportunities. Under the tutelage of Taylor and assistant coach Jim Corrigan, he has developed into a force in the paint. And he impressed a lot of people at the Pete Newell Big Man Camp in the summer after his sophomore year.
A big man with a nice touch and a good outside shot, Loughton has acquired an effective jump hook near the basket, is more explosive now and occasionally throws down a crowd-pleasing dunk.
Both Taylor and Corrigan characterize Loughton as an extremely smart and unselfish player with an unusual array of solid skills for a big man. Taylor believes one reason Loughton was chosen CAA Player of the Year was his willingness to sacrifice personal numbers for the good of the team. Corrigan was particularly impressed with the six assists Loughton dished out in the NCAA tournament against a super-talented Michigan State team, to go along with his 22 points and 11 rebounds.
“I couldn’t be more pleased with the kid,” Corrigan notes. “He’s never stopped improving. He just keeps getting better and better. He’s a joy to coach because he works so hard, and that’s the reason why he’s so good. He’s an inspiration to the other players.”
Taylor admits that he was concerned about whether Loughton would be fully prepared for his sophomore season following his trip back home for the summer, but Loughton’s work ethic and off-season training regimen were things his coaches need not have worried about. Loughton proved he was serious about his future role on the team when he returned to school nearly 30 pounds heavier, much of which was muscle.
“His extra 30 pounds has given him strength, leverage, explosion and endurance to get through a season and to take a physical pounding,” Taylor says.
But it’s not just physical ability that has made Loughton one of the top players in the country. “He has a good feel for the game and a good psychological outlook for competition,” observes Taylor, who notes that Loughton is able to say calm and focused in the heat of battle.
Corrigan believes the one area Loughton needs to concentrate on the most for the coming year is “his ability to finish in traffic with contact.”
Loughton’s ability to get up and down the court quickly is not an area of concern for his coaches, however. “He runs as well as any big man I’ve been around,” Taylor says. “When we go out and run two miles, he and Isaiah will take first and second every time. It’s rare that one of your big guys will challenge to win a two-mile race with the whole team.”
While Loughton does, indeed, take the game of basketball seriously, it’s also still fun for him, and he possesses the stereotypical Australian “no worries” attitude that occasionally catches his coaches off guard. He even had the brazenness, as a freshman, to poke a little fun at Taylor during the team’s annual Harbor Club tipoff banquet.
“I walk around and interview all the kids at this event, and a lot of them are pretty nervous,” Taylor says. “But Alex was glib enough and confident enough to have a little fun with me. I handed him the microphone and he starts making fun of my moustache, my temper, and this and that. It was all good-natured, and everybody loved it.”
Opposing coaches, on the other hand, are not amused by the Loughton their players encounter on the court. VCU’s Jeff Capel is one of many CAA coaches who will be happy to see him graduate next May. In the Monarchs’ three meetings against Capel’s Rams last season, Loughton averaged 21.5 points and 10 rebounds, including 28 points in the title game.
“He is a big guy who is really skilled, can play away from the basket, has a great touch and a tremendous feel for the game,” says Capel.
As a developer of young men on and off the court, Capel also admires the other side of Alex Loughton. “He was just named CAA Scholar-Athlete of the Year which, in my mind, speaks volumes about his character. He is a very talented young man with a great personality who happens to be a really good basketball player. He seems more interested in Old Dominion doing well than Alex Loughton. He is a great ambassador for Old Dominion University, and for all that’s right with college athletics.”
Making the transition to another culture and country at the far end of the globe has not proven difficult for Loughton, though he does have the Australian flag hanging in his apartment, along with the country’s unofficial flag of a boxing kangaroo, as reminders of home. His favorite animal, in fact, is the kangaroo, and his favorite bird, the kookaburra.
“Kangaroos used to come to our back yard. I grew up on a small farm near Perth that was close to the Bush, so we had kangaroos jumping over the fence to eat grass in the yard, and then off they’d go. Any golf course you go to, they’re all there. They just lounge around; they’re really cool. The kookaburras would sit out in the trees near the house and then dive in the pool.”
What Loughton has missed the most about Australia, besides his family and his girlfriend, Michelle McAlpine, whom he married back home on June 10, has been the scenery and the weather.
“It’s nice and hot all the time in the summer very good beach weather,” says Loughton, who prefers the outdoors, but laments the fact that it’s winter in Australia when returns home at the end of the spring semester. “Here in Norfolk, it’s a little cold all the time, just enough to turn you off from going outside in your shorts and flip-flops.”
He also misses cookouts at home when the family would grill lamb chops and sausages, which they call “snags,” and often longs for a taste of meat pie and his favorite dessert, sticky-date pudding.
Other than adjusting to the weather, learning a few American colloquialisms, and getting the unofficial basketball handshake and chest bump down, Loughton’s transition to the U.S. has been pretty smooth. He has been “adopted” by the Chambers family, whom he met at First Presbyterian Church in Norfolk’s Ghent section, where he attends Sunday School and has been known to play the bongos during the contemporary service. They have him over for dinner now and then, and he walks their dog and occasionally helps out with yard work.
At the start of the 2004-05 season, Loughton was joined on the team by a fellow countryman, Sam Harris, a 7-3 center from Tasmania. “I hang out with Sam a lot, and we get along pretty good,” Loughton says. They certainly attract a lot of looks when they’re together on campus.
As a child growing up in Perth, Loughton was head and shoulders taller than his classmates at an early age, and partly as a result he developed a good sense of humor.
“I was the kind of guy who liked to laugh a lot and joke around just to make other people laugh,” says Loughton, who enjoyed doing Mr. Bean impersonations.
The youngest and tallest of four brothers, he started playing basketball in second grade and began to develop his skills on their court at home. By the age of 14, he was playing for district teams, and he helped lead his under-18 squad to national championships in 1999 and 2000. Loughton was named MVP in the 2000 title game after scoring 19 points and hauling down 28 rebounds.
When he returns to school this fall for his senior year, Loughton’s status as a married man may prove to be the most interesting transition he has had to make to date. Instead of living in the University Village with teammates John Morris, Janko Mrksic and Harris, he will be residing in a Ghent apartment a few miles from campus. He acknowledges that he will miss hanging with the guys.
“Usually after practices, you’re exhausted and you go back and just sort of chill out on the couch or watch TV and just talk and joke around. I will miss that kind of interaction a lot.”
On the other hand, he’s definitely looking forward to married life. He met McAlpine, who has a bachelor’s degree in psychology from the University of Western Australia, at the end of 11th grade, but he estimates that they have actually been apart for three of the five-plus years they have been a couple. “I want to spend as much time with Michelle as possible. I kind of owe her some time.”
Loughton says his new bride is “more of an arts kind of girl” than an athlete. ”We were attracted to each other purely by personality, so it’s nothing to do with sports, which is good.” And to further prove the adage that opposites attract, she stands only 5-3, a full foot-and-a-half shorter than her husband. Good things, Loughton likes to say, often come in small packages.
Where the young couple will end up after the 2005-06 school year is anybody’s guess. Loughton hopes to continue his basketball career in the NBA and to eventually fulfill a lifelong dream of playing on the Australian Olympic team. “I think you have to aim as high as you can, otherwise you won’t get nearly as far,” he philosophizes.
“Definitely, the NBA is in my sights. But if you don’t make it, you go for the next best option, which would be playing in Europe.”
And when his professional career is over, he says he’ll be happy to return to his homeland and put his ODU degree to use.
“I know that basketball is not going to be around forever, and I don’t think I’m going to be one of those guys that squeezes out his last game at 42 or so. I think I will be able to make a pretty calculated decision about when to stop.
“The money obviously attracts a lot of people, but I really like the way of life back home.”