Long gone are the days when basketball fans tuned in to March Madness hoping to catch a fleeting glimpse of a Canadian.
When the NCAA men’s tournament tips off Thursday, look for numerous Canadians not only playing major minutes, but playing starring roles.
“What’s a tangible barometer for us to hold onto is the number of our players who are playing prominent roles within these teams,” said Rowan Barrett, assistant GM of Canada’s national men’s program.
“We’re not tuning in to hope our Canadian guy gets two or three minutes. We’re seeing a number of teams where our players are either the player of the year in the whole conference, the leading scorer of the team, the freshman of the year or they’re on the Wooden list as one of the top players in the entire country.”
Canadians, Barrett said, are the driving forces behind their teams, and “that’s got to be exciting for Canadians and exciting for Canadian basketball.”
A total of twenty-seven Canadians will suit up in the tournament.
Of course, there’s Andrew Wiggins of Vaughan, Ont., a favourite to go No. 1 overall in this year’s NBA draft. The Kansas Jayhawks star was the Big 12 freshman of the year.
But while Wiggins has been dominating NCAA headlines, there are numerous other Canadians shining on the college stage, including Andrew’s brother Nick, who plays for the undefeated Wichita State Shockers.
There’s Melvin Ejim, a small forward from Toronto and senior at Iowa State, who claimed AP Big 12 player of the year honours. Michigan sharp-shooter Nik Stauskas of Mississauga, Ont., was named the Big 10 player of the year.
Of the top five shot-blockers in the NCAA, three of them are Canadian. Jordan Bachynski, a seven-foot-two centre from Calgary, leads with 4.13 blocks a night for Arizona State. Bachynski was the Pac 12 defensive player of the year. Khem Birch, a 6-9 forward from Montreal, is second in blocks with 3.76 for UNLV. Toronto’s Sim Bullar, a seven-foot-five centre for New Mexico State, is fifth with 3.41.
“The good thing is when you have so many Canadians performing at a high level, it inspires other Canadians, it inspires the kids coming in and they’re thinking, ‘OK, I’m not just coming in here to play, I’m coming here to lead, I’m coming in here to be a driving force’ and the level and the bar continues to be raised,” said Barrett, who played college basketball for St. John’s.
“I think that’s great for our game, for our athletes who do decide to play in the NCAA. It’s a tangible show of the growth of our game.”
There’s Tyler Ennis of Brampton, Ont., who is the starting guard at Syracuse. Ennis was one of 25 players on the mid-season list for the John R. Wooden award for the NCAA’s top player, and is touted as an NBA first-round draft pick.
There were some tense moments Sunday before the NCAA unveiled its March Madness bracket, Barrett said. The tournament is a chance for players to turn some heads prior to the NBA draft, but obviously not all of the 92 Canadians in Div. 1 would make the spring showcase.
“That’s always exciting for sure, and especially when there are some of our Canadian players that we want to get into the tournament, that were not sure are going to get in, like a Dwight Powell at Stanford,” said Barrett.
Powell, from Toronto, was also on the mid-season Wooden award list.
“You want him to get on that stage, he wants to get drafted this year, he’s on the draft boards. So it was really exciting, exhilarating for him to get in there.”
Barrett predicts five Canadians may go in this year’s draft.
What’s also exciting, he said, is that the college stars are also keen to play for Canada.
“I think it’s great just the novelty of Canadians, to look and say, ‘Hey that’s great, there are Canadians there (in March Madness), but it’s a total other thing to see them donning the red and white and going out there and sweating and bleeding for their country as they give everything they have,” he said. “Hopefully that will be the most inspirational thing for some of these younger players who are coming in and watching the game.”