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NCAA BASKETBALL TOURNAMENT

Iti hopes to travel right into the NBA

New Mexico State's 7-foot center has played all over the country with the idea of one day being a pro

March 15, 2007|Ben Bolch | Times Staff Writer

Martin Iti has made more stops than some start-up airlines.

After attending one junior high school, six high schools and two colleges since arriving in the United States from Australia in 1998, the 7-foot center is in the NCAA tournament for a third time -- with a second team, New Mexico State.

And he still hasn't reached his intended destination.

Iti, a 24-year-old junior, has long harbored hopes of playing in the NBA, a possibility that appears to diminish with each passing year.

The former Orange County high school standout is the second or third man off the bench for New Mexico State, averaging a modest 6.3 points and 4.3 rebounds.

Iti has made four starts and averages 15.9 minutes a game, even though he shoots a team-leading 63.6% for the 13th-seeded Aggies (25-8), who play fourth-seeded Texas (24-9) Friday in an East Regional first-round game in Spokane, Wash.

"My role is to play defense ... and I do that well," Iti said this week during a conference call with reporters. "I'm comfortable with that."

New Mexico State Coach Reggie Theus says Iti comes off the bench because of his influence as a super sub -- not because he's not good enough to be a starter.

"Martin Iti, at times, has dominated the inside for us," Theus said. "When he gets the ball within five feet of the basket, it's probably going to be a dunk. Defensively, when he doesn't block the shot he changes the shot."

Iti has blocked 40 shots while playing most of the season with strained knee ligaments.

Until coming to New Mexico State, Iti spent most of the last nine years crisscrossing the U.S. trying to find the situations that would best advance his basketball career.

Along the way, he made stops at Anaheim Servite and Villa Park highs and also played in Colorado, Florida, Massachusetts and North Carolina.

His mercurial ways prompted probes by the Orange Unified School District, the Colorado High School Activities Assn., the California Interscholastic Federation's Southern Section and the NCAA.

At one point, Iti's mother became so enraged by all the moving around that she demanded the guardian with whom she had entrusted her son's care to relinquish custody and allow him to return home to Australia.

The situation escalated into a standoff in May 2000 at Los Angeles International Airport, where Iti defied his mother's wishes to board a Sydney-bound plane and returned to the apartment in Orange he shared with guardian Courtney Rosegreen.

Iti started his college career at North Carolina Charlotte in fall 2003, and Coach Bobby Lutz said Rosegreen "was like any other parent or guardian that I've had. He let us coach [Iti]. He was great."

But, typically, Iti had his ups and downs. After averaging six points and six rebounds in becoming a Conference USA all-freshman selection, Iti declared for the NBA draft. He then withdrew his name, partly because he measured only 6-8 1/2 without shoes at the pre-draft camp. (Lutz said Iti measured 6-11 with shoes.)

Iti returned to Charlotte and started 27 of 29 games as a sophomore, though his averages dipped to five points and four rebounds a game.

Lutz said Iti played bigger than those numbers, especially against high-profile teams that featured dominant post players.

"When he went up against Syracuse, Cincinnati, Louisville and their bigger guys, he played well," Lutz said.

"He struggled against smaller, quicker guys."

Iti played only nine minutes during Charlotte's loss to North Carolina State in the first round of the 2005 NCAA tournament, and soon he told Lutz he was leaving for another school.

"I think he wanted to get somewhere that would focus on him inside," Lutz said. "We were going to do more of that, but he decided to move on."

Iti contacted USC, which had recruited him four years earlier under former coach Henry Bibby, but ultimately he picked New Mexico State and Theus, who took over in Las Cruces before the 2005-06 season.

"We spend a lot of time together, and one of the reasons he came here is because he knew my relationship would help him understand what he needs to do to become a pro," Theus said. "There's no doubt in my mind that Martin Iti can play in the NBA."

Finally, the restless Iti appears to have fallen under a calming spell in the Land of Enchantment.

"Coach Theus is a great coach and a great mentor," Iti said. "I'm finally settled down, so I think it's all worked out for the best."

ben.bolch@latimes.com

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Martin Iti's American basketball odyssey:

* Denver East High (1998) -- Enrolled briefly as a freshman before transferring.

* Fort Collins (Colo.) Webber Junior High (1998) -- Enrolled as a ninth grader with the right to play varsity ball at Rocky Mountain High, but transferred in October.

* Fort Lauderdale (Fla.) Cardinal Gibbons High (1998-99) -- Enrolled in November, played second half of his freshman season.

* Anaheim Servite High (1999-2000) -- Played first full varsity season, averaging 12 ppg, 7.6 rpg.

* Villa Park High (2000-01) -- Spent year serving athletic suspension.

* Winchendon (Mass.) School (2001-02) -- With high school eligibility used up in California, moved to East Coast prep school and averaged 11 ppg, 7 rpg.

* Durham (N.C.) Mt. Zion Christian Academy (2002-03) -- Averaged 14 ppg, 10 rpg for his senior season.

* Charlotte (2003-2005) -- A Conference USA all-freshman team selection, and a starter in 27 of 29 games as a sophomore, averaged 5.5 points and 4.4 rebounds over two seasons.

* New Mexico State (2006-07) -- After sitting out a year following a transfer, averaged 6.3 points and 4.3 rebounds as a reserve.

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