CLEARWATER, Fla. - Nika Muhl was late to basketball, but she is quickly making up for lost time.
“I started playing five years ago,” Muhl said on Thursday. “I was into all sports, I always wanted to try everything. At the end I decided on basketball. I loved the competition. I found myself to be at my most competitive playing basketball. I was competitive as a child. I was always running everywhere. So combining all that, I found basketball.”
And some of the best college programs in the United States have found her. Muhl, a 5-foot-10 junior guard from Zagreb, Croatia, is considering five schools: UConn, Louisville, Ohio State, Oregon, and South Florida. She has welcomed all but Louisville for home visits and that final visit is planned. She hopes to make her choice by the start of summer.
She’ll get to see two of her finalists play tonight in the NCAA Final Four semifinals as Oregon and Baylor face off at 7 p.m., followed by UConn and Notre Dame.
“I’m so excited to be there and see some of the players that I might be playing with in the future,” Muhl said. “I can’t wait.”
Muhl is here participating in the first Women’s Next Generation program. Six members of the USA Basketball’s junior teams - including UConn Class of 2020 commit Paige Bueckers - and more than 30 NBA Academies women’s program participants from Africa, Australia, China and Latin America, in addition to select players from Canada and Europe started their three-day minicamp Thursday at the Long Center. The Next Generation camp consists of educational and life-skills sessions, on-court player development, and competition.
Two-time NCAA champion at Stanford and 1996 Olympic gold medalist Jennifer Azzi oversees the NBA Academies women’s program.
“It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” Muhl said. “It’s a blessing to be here with the girls from around the world and the USA girls. We can learn a lot from each other because of the different ways that basketball is played all over the world.
“The friendships you make are important. The respect, understanding ... This is much more than basketball. It’s really teaching each other how to be good people outside of basketball. It’s great to be all together here to experience it.”
Muhl, who turns 18 on Tuesday, plays for Croatian club team Trešnjevka in her hometown of Zagreb. She said the league Trešnjevka is in is the third-strongest in Europe and that they also playing nationally.
But she believes in order to raise her game she needs to play college ball in America. She would be part of the 2020 class.
“I want to play in the United States because of the education I can get here but also because of the high level of basketball that is here,” Muhl said. “I love how Americans think about basketball. I love how they represent it. I could go always back to Europe in a couple but playing here would be an experience and an opportunity not many people back home get.
“I’m looking at the team chemistry, looking forward to strong practices, and high concentration. I’m looking forward to having a chance to play in a crowded arena and playing in front of a lot of people.”
She is working now to narrow down her college choices, options which are a little different now than what they were three months ago.
“I did my list in January and it was four without UConn,” Muhl said. “Then they sent an e-mail and it was like, ‘Wow. I couldn’t believe it. I thought someone was joking with me.’ ”
It was no joke.
On March 14 - in the time between the American Athletic Conference Tournament and the NCAA Tournament - UConn coach Geno Auriemma made his way to Zagreb to make his recruiting pitch.
“He was exactly as I imagined,” Muhl said with a smile. “Actually, he’s a really cool guy. At first I was a little scared because he’s well known and famous. But there is always wisdom coming out of him and he’s smart and funny. I think we have a great relationship.”
Muhl has not set up any official recruiting visits, noting that she has missed a lot time from school her junior year.