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Cal State Fullerton’s diverse basketball team readies for the biggest stage — the NCAA tournament

Two years ago, Arkim Robertson had never heard of Cal State Fullerton.

The Grenada native played for a junior college in Oklahoma after a highlight video on YouTube caught a coach’s attention. Robertson wanted to continue his career and Fullerton was the lone Division I school to offer a scholarship.

There was one problem. The big man didn’t even know where the school was located.

“I went out and searched it up,” Robertson said Thursday. “California. OK. Sunshine, they’ve got beaches and it’s warm out there. It kind of reminded me of back home.”

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He will face the biggest challenge of his career Friday when Fullerton plays second-seeded Purdue in the first round of the NCAA tournament at Little Caesars Arena.

Robertson, a 6-foot-9, 230-pound forward, will draw the most difficult defensive assignment in Fullerton’s first tournament game since 2008. Amid the perks of March basketball — flying first class, facing more media in the locker room than the Titans have seen all season, participating in a tournament they’ve only seen on television — Robertson has to try to slow mammoth Purdue center Isaac Haas.

Robertson is the tallest player on Fullerton’s roster who plays significant minutes. But he’s dwarfed by the 7-2, 290-pound Haas, who averages 14.9 points and 5.6 rebounds a game.

“I’ve never guarded no one this big,” Robertson said.

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Cal State Fullerton guards Kyle Allman (0) and Landon Kirkwood (12) wait to shoot from mid-court during a practice ahead of the Titans’ first-round tournament game against Purdue.
(Carlos Osorio / Associated Press )

Fellow forward Jackson Rowe also will help to defend Haas and the rest of Purdue’s sizable front line. The matchup is comparable to the larger challenge faced by 15th-seeded Fullerton. Teams seeded 15th have defeated teams seeded second only eight times in tournament history, though four of the surprises have come since 2012.

“It’s basically David and Goliath,” Rowe said.

Robertson and Rowe are part of a diverse roster that helped the Titans win the Big West tournament after finishing fourth during the regular season and getting one first-place vote in the conference’s preseason poll. It includes natives of five countries other than the U.S. — Canada, China, the Czech Republic, Grenada and Slovenia — and players from Minnesota, New York and Texas.

If they’re being honest, most knew nothing about Fullerton, either, until they received a scholarship offer from the school better know for its prowess on the baseball field.

“I hadn’t even heard of it,” said Rowe, who hoped to play in California after growing up in Toronto. “It took a little bit of convincing.”

Reserve forward Dominik Heinzl made his way to Fullerton from the Czech Republic after a two-year stop at Laramie County Community College in Cheyenne, Wyo.

“You have to be aware of different cultures,” Heinzl said, “so it opens your eyes to how people from different countries act and react to certain things.”

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Forward Johnny Wang was born in Beijing, though he played high school basketball at Santa Margarita High in Rancho Santa Margarita. Guard Gaber Ozegovic is from Slovenia.

Then there’s the group of players from across the U.S. One, guard Daniel Venzant, didn’t know Fullerton existed until assistant coach Danny Sprinkle offered a scholarship. Like many others, Venzant, from Midland, Texas, had to look up the school.

“I think it helps us,” he said of the diversity. “We all come from different backgrounds. All the personalities come together. I think this is a real special team because we all get along and we’re all really close to each other.”

Robertson surveyed the scene in the locker room Thursday. He wanted to take in everything about the experience. The open practice. Interviews. Sights in Detroit.

“It’s been overwhelming,” he said.

A large sign displayed Fullerton’s name outside the locker room. The Titans had finally arrived.

nathan.fenno@latimes.com

Follow Nathan Fenno on Twitter @nathanfenno

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