By Thomas Corhern, TTU Sports Information
COOKEVILLE, Tenn. – If it wasn't for Aleksa Jugovic, Domen Omladič might not have ever suited up in the Purple and Gold. The Tennessee Tech freshman gained an instant rapport with the senior because they both had so many common threads.
Jugovic is from Serbia, Omladič from Slovenia. That European connection right off the bat made things easier for the freshman Omladič, gaining valuable advice and guidance from the senior Jugovic.
In so many ways, their stories are similar.
There's no question that A.J. – or better known as "Serbian Sugar," as his Twitter handle would put it – is one of the fan-favorite players on the Golden Eagle roster. Omladič aspires to follow in those footsteps and those are pretty good ones to follow.
To call it hero worship might be a little intense. And definitely don't call them big and little brothers. But the duo is united in a common goal, to lead the Golden Eagles to an Ohio Valley Conference championship and they bring a diverse set of skills to the table to try to achieve that goal.
For Jugovic, his basketball story begins in the early part of the millennium following some basketball success for his native land as Yugoslavia claimed the 2002 FIBA World Championship, topping Argentina 84-77 in overtime. Dejan Bodiroga (27 points) and Predrag Stojakovic (26 points) powered the way.
"After that, it was kind of natural to me," he said, reminiscing back to when he was seven years old. "I just saw people on the street celebrating and it was the thing at the moment. I just a kid, but I felt like it was my calling."
His hometown of Leskovac is larger than Cookeville, but it shares some similarities.
"It's not as small as Cookeville, not as spread out, but everyone knows each other," Jugovic said. "It's very family-oriented. I lived in the center of town where everything is close – my family, my grandparents, my school, my practices, so I was never really in the need of having a car or anything like that. It was a big change when I got here and this type of living. It's a pretty cool spot though – we were known for a barbecue festival and a bunch of other cool stuff."
Jugovic played for the Serbian U-18 national team in the FIBA Europe U-18 Championships and led the team to a 6-4 record in the event. Following that, he came to America and played basketball at Chattanooga's Hamilton Heights Christian Academy. While there, he averaged 14.5 points, 5.9 assists, 1.9 steals and 1.6 rebounds a game.
And when Tennessee Tech and head coach Steve Payne came calling, it was an easy decision.
"The way the culture here was like, what the coaches stood for and they really wanted me," he said. "That was a key factor – to go somewhere where the coaches and the whole athletic department and the community cared about me and wanted me to excel and represent the university."
In Olmadič's case, it was a national team coach who saw something in him and introduced him to the game.
"Before basketball, I was a wrestler," he said. "I've always been a big kid. When I was born, I was like 11 pounds. My P.E. teacher was an ex-national team head coach and he told me to grab a basketball. We just went from there."
Growing up in Žalec, Slovenia, was a slightly different experience.
"We're located in central Europe," Omladič said. "We're a very developed country, but it's only two million people, so it's still a pretty small population. We're very passionate about our sports. We play a lot more winter sports. Everybody is definitely hard-working."
But Omladič started to excel in basketball in his native land. He played for the U-14 and U-16 national team in the European Championships and was named a top-five player on the U-14 squad. He was the top scorer on his U-19 squad, then was called up one year early for the U-20 team. He then was invited to compete in the 2017 adidas Eurocamp.
And when the opportunity arose to play collegiate basketball and Omladič was being recruited, Tech had an ace up its sleeve.
At first, it wasn't easy for Jugovic. The change in scenery, in language, in culture – it was just so much of a departure.
"It's just totally different," he said. "In the early days, it was pretty tough for me. There were moments where I was really homesick, but the people here really believed in me, they were patient with me even when I wasn't at the level I should have been. I've seen things really start to pay off and I thank everyone who's been supporting me in these great four years."
In his first three seasons at Tech, Jugovic had started to make quite a name for himself. He went from averaging 5.8 points a game as a freshman to 15.2 following his junior campaign. He was deadly from 3-point range, knocking down 36 percent of his long-range shots as a junior, including hitting seven against Lipscomb – setting the school record for consecutive 3-pointers made in a game.
A sniper beyond the perimeter. A 1,000-point scorer. He even gained a fan following and a cool nickname.
"I have to thank (assistant coach) Gus Fraley for creating that Twitter handle – that got really, really big," Jugovic said on his "Serbian Sugar" title. "But that just goes to show how much people here really care about basketball and about this program. I'm just really excited to be a part of this."
And his thoughts on the nickname?
"I love it. I think it's awesome. It makes things a lot more fun and interesting for the fans and also for me. My family back home, they'll watch the game and (Golden Eagle Sports Network broadcaster) Dylan (Vazzano) will say 'Serbian Sugar' and they'll ask what's going on and stuff like that. It's really fun though."
It was that experience, the knowledge of exactly what he was facing and seeing how it wasn't as big of an obstacle that made the decision easier for Omladič.
Because of the success Jugovic has had as a Golden Eagle, in Omladič's eyes, the opportunity became one he couldn't pass up.
"One of the factors was definitely A.J.," Omladič said. "He helped me with the official visit. I was able to talk to him in a relaxed conversation. He explained to me how everyone was friendly. It was kind of hard to believe that everyone was so friendly, but there is that southern hospitality and it is so nice.
"It's just so hard to believe. Everywhere you go, people are asking, 'How are you?' It's just amazing. It's a great feeling that even if things go bad, people will still be nice to me. That just struck a chord with me – from the coaches down, everyone is here to help you."
And through Jugovic's efforts – as well as his teammates' – it's been an easy transition.
"Talking with A.J., I knew what to expect, how everything would look like," Omladič said. "He made those first couple of weeks easy. If I had questions, I didn't have to ask them in front of everybody, I could ask A.J. in Serbian. That was a plus, I guess. He just really made it like a smooth transition and no one else really noticed it.
"But everyone has been super supportive, from my roommate Hunter Vick on. He's really helped me out with any problems I've had. Even from coaches to Dr. J (assistant athletic director for academics and student welfare Lance Jasitt), they're all here to help you. If I have a question, they'll figure it out. Since I've been here, I've never gotten a 'no' for an answer. I'm just amazed."
For Jugovic, he sees a comrade in arms, yet a teammate he can mold into something greater. He also sees the opportunity as a role where he can strengthen himself.
"It's pretty good," Jugovic said. "I think the situation is actually better for him coming in as a freshman, because I remember what it was like for me. It was very tough coming here on my own. It can be really rough in the beginning, but we've got a great connection. It's weird to me seeing as I'm the senior and I'm the guy who, not really take care of him, but who shows him around. It's really an interesting role for me."
For Omladič, he sees inspiration.
"He's like a role model to me. He plays the big brother role – we're not really like big brother, little brother, more kind of buddies. We push each other on the court and everything. He's definitely someone I look up to – even though I'm not telling him that. He's been a great player for three years and I hope he does some amazing things this year. He's outstanding. But we keep pushing each other. I hope I can succeed like him by the time my career is through."
In a way, it's fitting that America is considered the land of opportunity. For Jugovic and Omladič, it's an opportunity to represent their homelands in a new land, an opportunity to make names for themselves and an opportunity to follow in the footsteps of some amazing international players who have suited up for Tech over the years.
"It's an honor," Jugovic said, "but it's also a big responsibility to represent where I come from, represent everything I stand for and I spend a lot of time trying to be at the top of my game. I know last season wasn't what we wanted, so we're really trying to be at the top of our game."
Omladič added, "I think it's pretty cool that Tennessee Tech is open to multicultural players. Basketball is more diverse, and it's definitely a statement that players are trying to play a more global kind of game than a straight American game. I have some things that I can bring to the table because I'm European – or will be able to in a few years."
Photos by Thomas Corhern, TTU Sports Information