WHEN ZACH SPIKER was named Drexel's basketball coach in late March, he needed players. That's what happens when you inherit a team that won six times and then a couple of guys opt to transfer.
In Iceland, Kari Jonsson was looking to fulfill a childhood dream of playing in this country.
All they needed was a connection.
Enter Dragons assistant Rob O'Driscoll, who'd spent the past eight seasons on Matt Brady's staff at James Madison. Turns out he had an old friend who was living in Iceland. He told O'Driscoll about Jonsson, and O'Driscoll took the six-hour flight to check Jonsson out for himself. It soon evolved into a mutual fit. Before long, Jonsson was eating cheesesteaks instead of grouse, reindeer or any of his other traditional favorites.
"We were always watching college basketball in my house," said Jonsson, a 6-3, 170-pound guard whose father played professionally in Belgium and is now a coach. "It was a big thing in our family. Especially March Madness. When you're young, it is a goal to come here and develop your game.
"I played with a lot with older guys, internationally and all that. The club teams are like semipro. I know the game well. I've been playing for a long time. But it's a lot different. It's hard to get recognized by schools in the states. But as soon as you go with the national team to Europe, you get your name."
And these days he's trying to do it again in this part of the world.
Jonsson, who was also a soccer goalie, made all-first team at last year's Under-20 Euro Championships. After being selected the best young player in Iceland's top league the previous season. And after getting the MVP at the U-18 Nordic Championship in 2015.
He chose West Philly over several other Colonial Athletic Association programs. His close friend and longtime teammate, Jon Axel Gudmundsson, ended up going to Davidson. They're among 10 players from Iceland currently suiting up for American schools at different levels. Seven more have already finished their careers in this country.
In early December, Jonsson was the CAA Rookie of the Week after scoring 25 points in a 78-72 win at High Point. Later that month, Gudmundsson was winning the same award in the Atlantic 10.
"We thought about going somewhere together, but it didn't work out," said the baby-faced Jonsson, who's averaging 9.5 points in 28 minutes a game and shooting 42.9 percent from three. "Our parents know each other really well. But at some point you always have to think about yourself first. The type of basketball we play - fast, up and down - suited me pretty well. This was the best place for me."
He's part of an all-freshman starting backcourt with Baltimore native Kurk Lee, a dynamic 5-10 ballhandler who is contributing 13.9 points and 5.1 assists in 32 minutes. The Dragons (6-10, 0-3), who have lost four straight, play Northeastern (11-5, 4-0) in Boston on Thursday night.
"I think we evaluated him at the right time," said Spiker, who won 19 games last season in his seventh year at Army, the most wins by the Cadets in nearly four decades. "(O'Driscoll) did a great job. We were looking for skills that he had. Our process is making a long-term investment. He's still adjusting to the physical style of play. He has to put on a ton of weight, but he makes people honor us from outside the arc. He has a feel for the game. We knew he was going to have to be in the mix. We didn't know it would be this much.
"I've had some international (recruiting) experience, but not recently for obvious reasons. Maybe 10 years ago, we did play a different game. Now I think we all try to play the same way. He's competed at a high level. He went to Greece for two weeks. That's an unbelievable summer . . . There's a transition for any freshman, wherever you're from. He was able to get home, but he was at our house for Christmas. It's been as smooth as it could be. He's a little more seasoned than most freshmen. He's learned English since he was like in the third grade. But sometimes he'll say something and we'll start laughing and go, 'Could you say it again?' "
Jonsson is from Hafnarfjorour, his nation's third-largest city with a population of just over 28,000. It's located on the southwest coast of the island, about six miles from the capital of Reykjavik. It's the site of the annual Viking festival, and is also known as Iceland's rock 'n' roll capital.
"The first thing people usually say is that Iceland and Greenland should switch names," Jonsson pointed out. "In Iceland, everything is green and beautiful. And in Greenland, everything is ice.
"The hardest part is being away from your family and friends. But I can always talk to them over Skype or phone. That helps a lot. I miss my mom's cooking, for sure. We have a lot of fish, but I don't really eat it that much . . . It's not that much different than here. It's the little things, definitely. Cheesesteaks are OK. I haven't had a hoagie. But there's a lot of fast-food places here that we don't have. It's nice. Chipotle is great. It can be tough, a lot of new things. But it's fun. I'm learning.
"I came here with an open mind. I didn't know what to expect. You can always figure things out. I think it would be much harder for an American to go to Iceland and fit in. Icelandic people go to the states a lot, for vacationing or shopping. You see some interesting places. So culturally it's not that much of a shock. Iceland isn't Mars."
Just in case, he's found a professor from home who teaches international business. Can't hurt.
"She's been here for a while," Jonsson said. "So her Icelandic is getting kind of rusty. But I can have a conversation with her. We meet from time to time. It's nice to be able to talk in your native tongue once in a while."
The details all add up. And whenever that new life maybe gets to be a little too much, well, at least there's always Chipotle to look forward to.