The next best thing to a Canadian team in NCAA Division I men's basketball can be found on the campus of Gonzaga University in Spokane, Wash., where four players from north of the border are part of a young squad that has cracked the top 10 this season.
Kelly Olynyk, Manny Arop, Bol Kong and Robert Sacre aren't household names in Canada - yet. But come this weekend, should the Zags get rolling in the annual championship event known as March Madness, that could change quickly. Gonzaga, 26-6, will open the tournament as the No. 8 seed in the West Regional and will face No. 9 Florida State, 22-9, on Friday in Buffalo.
"I think it's very possible for that to happen if we continue to play well and go deep in the tournament," said Olynyk, a 6-foot-11 freshman forward from Kamloops. "I think Canada could jump onboard."
The most remarkable thing about the four Canadians is how much they're contributing so early in their college careers to one of the NCAA's elite programs, which four times during the past decade reached the NCAA tournament's Sweet 16. Though three of the four players are in their first year at Gonzaga, all are playing significant minutes.
Sacre, a seven-foot centre and redshirt sophomore from Vancouver who already has NBA scouts buzzing, is the only starter. But it's not unusual for Gonzaga to have three Canadians on the floor at a time.
"I've got some classmates who say, 'Why are there so many Canadians on this team?'" said Kong, a 6-foot-6 forward from Vancouver. "I just say, 'We're starting to move up.'"
Though all four players developed their games in Canada, Kong and Arop were born in Sudan and immigrated as children to Vancouver and Edmonton, respectively. Sacre was born in Louisiana to a Canadian mother and an American father and moved to B.C. when he was 10. Olynyk spent his early years in Toronto but moved to Kamloops as a young teen.
All four have spent time with Canada's junior national team.
"These kids are good players and in each and every case they've been very well coached," Gonzaga head coach Mark Few said. "I think the sky is the limit. I see them all being guys who are going to be able to start and play major minutes down the road."
The four players were familiar with one another before getting to Gonzaga; Olynyk and Arop played together last summer on the national junior team, and Sacre and Kong go back to their days on the B.C. provincial team.
The four say there is a comfort level among them.
"Having Kelly, Bol and even Rob, these are all guys we've trained against," said Arop, a 6-foot-5 forward who played at Basketball Canada's defunct National Elite Development Academy. "I've played against Rob since I was in Grade 8 and was on the Alberta provincial team, and him with B.C. Even in high school we played against each other so it's nice that we're on the same team now.
"To have three other guys - not that you'd feel like an outcast - but it's nice to have those guys here and we can talk about experiences because we know each other for years back. We're just continuing to build our relationships."
With such a quorum of Canadians, there is the inevitable ribbing from teammates and coaches about using such unfamiliar words as "tuque" or "washroom."
"It comes left and right, but we tease them as well," said Arop, who underwent foot surgery last week and will be unable to play in the NCAA tournament. "They comment to us about hockey or Canada is this and that. We're all really tight."
But the ribbing sometimes it finds its way on the basketball court as well.
"With the junior national program we were taught to go baseline and hit the drift on the other side, and coach Few hates that," Kong said. "He'll say 'We're not in Canada, stop that! We want to punch the middle.'"
All four players (Olynyk was the only one who said he considered playing in Canada) said a part of Gonzaga's attraction was its proximity to Canada. But another was the atmosphere the school provides, with its 6,000-seat athletic centre sold out every game, and a crowd that ranks among the most energetic in all of college basketball. With a series of pregame fan rituals, such as fans dancing on cue and turning their backs when the visiting team is introduced, the buildup to a game has the feel of a religious revival.
"The atmosphere of playing here is one of the biggest things," Arop said. "Gonzaga is known for being one of the toughest places to play. There's a good fan base, lots of support and it's a good program. One of the reasons we came here is we are winners and we want to carry on that tradition. We want to be in the NCAA tournament and win a league championship."
Being at the centre of such a frenzied environment means the players are recognized everywhere they go in the city of just 200,000.
"It's crazy," Sacre said. "If I was in Vancouver, you would never know anything going on in my life. But down here people know everything going on in your life. It's one of those things that makes you, like, where am I? I feel like a big part of being down here is being part of the craziness"
Also rooting for Gonzaga is Greg Francis, the head coach of the University of Alberta men's team. He has coached all four of the players through the national junior team, and Few credits him for much of their development.
Francis attributes much of their success to their international experience with the junior national team.
"They're able to produce as first-year players in a major program and you don't see a lot of Canadians doing that," Francis said. "They've competed at more of a pro level and with that comes more respectability, not worried about hype but about training and practice. When they see other international kids being trained the same way, they run with it, and they've done really well.
"It's a special group," Francis said of the four Canadians. "I think they'll all meet up and make our senior [national]team that much better."
It turns out Gonzaga isn't finished recruiting Canadians; it already has its eye on another player or two for next season. Given the success it's having, why not?
"When we look at a kid from Canada, it's not because we couldn't get kids in the U.S.," said Gonzaga assistant coach Tommy Lloyd, who helped recruit the four Canadians. "We think those kids will keep us at the level we expect to play at.
"They're already getting lots of minutes and they've already had moments when they've been great. The future is going to be bright for all of them."
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