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Alina Rogers, Courtesy University of Utah Athletics
Novak Topalovic, a 7-foot center from Serbia, left, has joined the Utah basketball team as a graduate transfer after playing for four years at Idaho State and is expected to be a key player in the middle for the Utes in 2018-19.

SALT LAKE CITY — Novak Topalovic had already traveled 6,000 miles from his home in Serbia, so driving another 165 miles down I-15 wasn’t a big deal when he decided to move from Idaho State to the University of Utah earlier this year as a graduate transfer basketball player.

The 7-foot center will be in the starting lineup for the Utes Thursday night when they open the season against the University of Maine (7 p.m. Huntsman Center) in the first-ever meeting between the two schools. He’s been impressive this fall in his workouts with the Utes and in last week’s exhibition win over College of Idaho, he produced a double-double with 11 points and 11 rebounds.

Coach Larry Krystkoiwiak says Topalovic has made a nice transition over the last few months and is playing extremely hard.

“His heart’s in the right spot,” he said. “I think he’s gained some confidence here, as of late, and is kind of relaxing a little bit.”

When he decided to leave Idaho State, where he averaged 10.7 points, 6.8 rebounds and 1.1 blocks on 52.8 percent shooting last year, Topalovic joined a long list of players who have taken advantage of the NCAA graduate transfer rule that went into effect in 2011.

" We recruited the crap out of him when we found out he wanted to leave. It wasn’t by accident. There were a lot of people all over the country that wanted a 7-foot guy that has one year to play, a grad transfer with some experience under his belt. "
Utah head coach Larry Krystkowiak on Novak Topalovic

Topalovic had completed four years at Idaho State after redshirting his first year and was looking for bigger and better things with an eye towards playing professionally. He wanted to stay in the West and playing for a Pac-12 school just down the road, fit the bill.

“After being at Idaho State for four years I kind of knew the ins and outs of Division I basketball and I was specific what I was looking for,” said Topalovic. “During the official visit I felt welcomed, so I would say it was a pretty easy decision.”

The Utes, who had lost starting center David Collette to graduation, were happy to take Topalovic to join returning 7-footer Jayce Johnson and incoming 7-footer Brandon Morley in the middle.

“We recruited the crap out of him when we found out he wanted to leave,” said Krystkowiak. “It wasn’t by accident. There were a lot of people all over the country that wanted a 7-foot guy that has one year to play, a grad transfer with some experience under his belt.”

One of the things the Utes liked about Topalovic was the upward trajectory he’s been on for the past few years. He’s made great strides since hardly playing a lick in high school and got better each year at Idaho State.

“He’s a guy that wasn’t heavily recruited out of high school and when you look at his graph, he made nice improvements each and every year and I think he’s improved since he’s been here,” said Krystkowiak.

Arizona State guard Shannon Evans II, right, dribbles past Idaho State center Novak Topalovic, left, during the second half of an NCAA basketball game Friday, Nov. 10, 2017, in Tempe, Ariz. Arizona State defeated Idaho State 94-74. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

“Everything since my redshirt year has been upwards,” added Topalovic. “It’s been really good.”

Topalovic comes from a country where basketball is big, going back to the days when it was part of Yugoslavia. Several Serbian players are in the NBA including Nikola Jokic, Nemanja Bjelica and Milos Teodosic and former stars include Vlade Divac and Predrag Stojakovic.

“I’ve been playing basketball my whole life,” said Topalovic. “I’ve played since I was in kindergarten. That’s what we did as kids, either that or soccer.”

Topalovic came to the United States as a 16-year-old and played for two years at Santa Margarita High School in Orange County, California.

Well, if you can call it playing.

Utah forward Kyle Kuzma, left, shoots as Idaho State center Novak Topalovic defends in the first half during an NCAA college basketball game Friday, Nov. 27, 2015, in Salt Lake City. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

Topalovic said he played just two minutes per game and mostly sat on the bench in high school. However, Idaho State coach Bill Evans saw his potential and offered him a scholarship, the only offer he got.

So he headed up to Pocatello, where he went to work, intent on improving his game. He gives a lot of credit to a graduate assistant coach named Jason Hopkins, who worked with him for hours on his game.

“There were days I would do four workouts a day and that’s not a lie,” Topalovic said. ”(Hopkins) was a great assistant there at the time with an unbelievable knowledge of basketball he showed me that I still use.”

After a redshirt season, Topalovic played sparingly as a freshman, starting four games and averaging 2.9 points per game. He actually played against Utah at the Huntsman Center early that season, coming off the bench and getting five points and five rebounds in 14 minutes.

The next year, he started every game and averaged 10.2 points, 6.3 rebounds on 61.3 percent shooting and posted similar numbers last year.

Ravell Call
Brigham Young Cougars guard Nick Emery (4) takes a shot with Idaho State Bengals center Novak Topalovic (13) defending during NCAA basketball in Provo on Tuesday, Dec. 20, 2016.

When Topalovic decided to take advantage of the graduate transfer rule, his coaches at ISU were understandably not too happy about losing their starting center. But Topalovic has nothing but good things to say about Evans, who was the coach at Southern Utah for 16 years before coaching at ISU.

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“I have no bad words to say about Idaho State, especially Bill Evans,” said Topalovic. “They were so good to me. I just felt like it was a time of my life to play at a bigger stage. I’m very thankful about everything they’ve done for me. It was a very hard decision to be made.”

Topalovic got his undergraduate degree in psychology and is studying educational leadership policy for his Masters at Utah. While the NBA would be a dream, Topalovic would like to keep playing basketball beyond this year, perhaps in Europe.

“I have a body that would fit that profile, but this year is very big for me depending on how I do," he said. “What opportunities present themselves after the season I will take. I want to do my best this season and go from there.”