Fleeing violence in Sudan, TCU's Kouat Noi found a home in Australia

Kouat Noi remembers the gunfire.

It's seared in his memory. The country's second civil war forced his family from their apartment in Khartoum, the capital city of Sudan. He was 3 years old. Noi called it an evacuation; families just like his fled the country en masse.

In all, the war lasted more than two decades. An estimated two million died. Millions more were displaced. South Sudan eventually became its own nation as a result.

Not long after the family left its home, they'd leave the country, too. And that's why, if you ask him, Noi will say he's from Australia -- where he and his extended family fled -- even though he considers himself South Sudanese.

Noi's father, Ater Dhiu, had the same goal as many among Australia's considerable South Sudanese population, the majority of which arrived during the tail end of the war.

"A better life," Noi recalls from Fort Worth, Texas, where the sophomore forward leads TCU in 3-pointers made (49) and is second in scoring average (14.8 points per game).

Noi's Horned Frogs are 17-7 (5-6 in the Big 12), on pace for their third consecutive 20-win season and looking for their first NCAA tournament victory since 1987, when head coach Jamie Dixon was a player with the squad.

But before he landed in the Big 12, Noi relished his time in Newcastle, along the Australian coast, two hours north of Sydney. It was there, at a local park, where he picked up a basketball for the first time in 2005. He turned 8 that year. The park became a sanctuary, where he'd spend nearly every night playing against his older brother, Dhiu.

"He was much better than me," Kouat said. "I'd always lose. And that's when I started to have my first love of basketball, competing against my older brother."

On the court, Kouat improved. Slow and steady. He beat his brother, one-on-one, by the time he turned 10.

"I still tell him to this day," he said.

Noi might not have been born there, but Australia is where he'd become a man: from that neighborhood park to middle school and some of high school at St. Francis Xavier, to the Newcastle Hunters, an AAU-esque club team in his hometown.

Newcastle was also where he'd meet future No. 1 NBA draft pick Ben Simmons, the Philadelphia 76ers superstar, before they'd both set their sights on a new horizon: the United States.

From Khartoum to Newcastle

It's early January and Kouat Noi, 21, is on one of the biggest stages in college basketball. His No. 25-ranked Horned Frogs are in Kansas' famed Allen Fieldhouse, where they've never won.

Early in the first half, TCU trails by three. Just over midcourt, Noi takes a pass from Kendric Davis, steps inside the Jayhawks logo and pulls up. This is Steph Curry-at-Oracle territory ... in Allen Fieldhouse.

Noi drains it.

On his way back on defense, he raises his finger to his lips, beckoning silence from an already-silent crowd. It's the kind of competitive fire for which Aussies are known.

"He showed NBA range with that 3," ESPN announcer Bob Wischusen said on the broadcast.

The NBA? That's a long way from Khartoum and Newcastle.

Sure, TCU would go on to lose 77-68 to then-No. 7 Kansas. The Jayhawks have won all seven home meetings in the series. But Noi and his 10 points off the bench sent a message against Kansas, the winners of the past 14 Big 12 titles: He's not afraid of the moment.

Noi's path to big-time basketball might have never happened if he didn't follow his friend, Simmons, stateside and finish high school at Montverde Academy in Florida. The powerhouse prep school has seen NBA All-Stars Joel Embiid and D'Angelo Russell, as well as Duke's prospective top-five pick RJ Barrett, utilize Montverde as a launching point under coach Kevin Boyle. Boyle's first brush with greatness was another eventual first overall pick: Kyrie Irving at New Jersey's St. Patrick High School.

American basketball was an adjustment for Noi. The practices were longer, the expectations grander both on and off the court.

"It was hard because it was a private school, and you have to follow all the rules," Noi said. "When I first got there, I never met a coach like Kevin Boyle."

To help him through pitfalls now and then, Noi calls his Newcastle pal Simmons. But it's the parents of the Sixers' wunderkind, Dave and Julie, who've taken Noi under their wings.

"He showed me how to act and be a professional really at a young age," Noi said of Dave Simmons, who had a 12-year professional career in Australia. "He just told me all the little things and how to be a professional and a man, especially in the basketball environment.

"When he watches some of my games, he tells me what I need to improve on, especially after the game."

Dave and Julie must've been smiling Jan. 12, when Noi set career highs with 30 points and eight 3s -- tied for the second most in a game in TCU history -- on the road against Oklahoma, which held on for a two-point victory.

For the Horned Frogs, it was the 48th straight loss to a ranked team on the road. But the silver lining was Noi. It was potential realized. He knew he had it in him all along.

Noi chooses his path

Noi remembers Dubai.

He was there to play for Australia in the FIBA under-17 championship in 2014. The Aussies -- who also had Miami's Dejan Vasiljevic, another Aussie in Action, on the roster -- faced the United States, which boasted future NBA players Jayson Tatum, Harry Giles and Josh Jackson. Noi wasn't intimidated.

Giles, now a member of the Sacramento Kings, was the No. 1-ranked high school player in his class. Noi remembers going at it. The trash talk, Noi said, was pretty fun. At one point, Noi had scored more buckets on Giles than Giles had on him. And Noi let him know it.

"'You can't do nothing,'" Noi remembers saying. "'You're trash.' Yeah, that's what I told him."

And it came to a head later in the game, with 8 minutes, 51 seconds remaining, when Giles elbowed Australia's Tom Wilson as he was running up the court. Noi and Giles then had words. Again, Noi's team would come out on the losing end; the U.S. held on for a 99-92 victory. But Noi, who had 13 points in 23 minutes, flashed his mettle.

Fast forward to 2019. Noi is fifth in the Big 12 in 3s made. His 14.8 points per game is a significant improvement from last season's 10.2. ESPN NBA draft expert Jonathan Givony says he's "monitoring" Noi, whom he believes doesn't have the defensive part of the 3-and-D equation but shows NBA promise.

"Worst case," Givony says, "he's going to make good money back home in Australia."

Noi, for his part, isn't worried. His cousins, Lat Mayen and Yuat Alok, play with him at TCU. They speak their native language, Dinka, around the team. Their teammates have even picked up short phrases and greetings, to Noi's delight.

But Noi's focus, again, is on the horizon. Those NBA guys he faced off with almost five years ago? He's still not intimidated.

"I think I'm at the same level as them," Noi said. "I just took a different path."