Mines discovers gold with “outlier” Natesan
Growing up in Santa Clara, Calif., as the son of Indian immigrants, Gokul Natesan always sensed he was a bit of a basketball outlier.
“I did feel a little different. When you’re playing basketball on a travel team, people don’t really expect anything because they haven’t really seen an Indian basketball player,” said Natesan. a standout senior guard for Colorado School of Mines. “So it’d definitely catch people by surprise, and there were definitely challenges coming up and establishing myself as a player when there’s not really any notable IndianAmerican players. But I grew to embrace it.”
Natesan dreamed of playing Division I basketball, but his lone scholarship offer coming out of Cupertino High School in the South San Francisco Bay area was from Mines. Now, four years later, the 6-foot-5 thirdteam All-American has led the No. 11-ranked Orediggers into their first NCAA Division II Elite Eight appearance. Mines plays Wednesday at 1:30 p.m. in Sioux Falls, S.D., against No. 2ranked Bellarmine, from Louisville, Ky.
The Orediggers, much like their leader, appear to be outliers.
The school renowned for its engineering program can recruit only players who are elite in the classroom — to the tune of a minimum 27 ACT score — but the high academic hurdles haven’t prevented Mines (30-4) from setting a program record for victories in the midst of its seventh NCAA Tournament appearance in the past eight years.
Natesan leads a patchwork roster of engineering whizzes from all across the county, and two from overseas, on a team that can go 10 deep. The Orediggers have an old-school approach to basketball, placing heavy emphasis on passing and quality shot selection. Mines is fourth among Division II schools in assists, averaging
17.4 per game, and is making 52.6 percent of its field goals.
“If you look at our numbers, we’re playing great team basketball. We’re shooting it at a high percentage and we’re rebounding well,” said coach Pryor Orser, in his 16th season at Mines. “This team is playing as well as any team I’ve ever coached, and that’s all enabled by Gokul Natesan playing the best basketball of his life.”
Natesan, who has scored 2,000 career points, will again take center stage Wednesday in a moment far removed from his early days playing basketball in northern California. It used to be the opposition would look at Natesan and wonder whether the wiry Indian kid had game.
Now he’s usually the center of the opponent’s game plan.
“It couldn’t have played out any better to come into the Elite Eight in my final year, and looking back on how much I’ve developed as a player is really rewarding,” Natesan said. “Those days of people questioning me in club ball are long in the past, and looking back on my freshman year, it seems like light years away, too, because I can see my growth into a more complete player.”
Natesan leads Mines in scoring (18.6) and averaged nine assists in three victories in the South Central Tournament en route to the program’s first regional title. Natesan is also the program’s career steals leader, and his defense catalyzes a balanced team that features the likes of junior guard Luke Schroepfer (who leads Division II with a .500 shooting percentage on 3-pointers) and senior power forward Caleb Waitsman (a first team all-RMAC selection).
Orser is confident the Orediggers’ dream ride isn’t about to end quite yet.
“Bellarmine’s a team that’s similar to us. They pass the ball well, and you can tell from the film that they have gym-rat guys who put in the time,” Orser said. “But we like how we match up. We’ll have to pound the ball inside, and Natesan has to help us control the tempo as well.”
Colorado School of Mines senior Gokul Natesan fires up a shot during the Orediggers’ win over Arkansas-Fort Smith in the first round of the NCAA Division II tournament.