Suddenly, out of nowhere, Canadian Brady Heslip has hit the big time in the pressure-packed world of NCAA Division I men’s basketball.
He’s a 21-year-old guard with an impeccable basketball pedigree from Burlington, Ont., whose shooting eye has helped carry him to celebrity status on the campus of Baylor University in Waco, Tex.
The Bears are making a stirring run in the National Collegiate Athletic Association tournament thanks largely to the 6-foot-2 Heslip, who dropped nine three-pointers in an 80-63 victory over Colorado on Saturday, propelling Baylor into its second Sweet 16 appearance in three seasons.
The third-ranked Bears will play 10th-ranked Xavier in a South Regional semi-final on Friday in Atlanta.
During the first half of the Colorado game, Heslip flashed his trademark three-point goggles after draining some of his long shots – joining his thumb and forefinger in a circle and then holding it over his eyes, leaving three fingers in the air. The gesture, which drew a warning at halftime from one of the referees, helped the sophomore guard trend on Twitter after the game.
On Monday morning, Heslip’s stature continued to grow following an appearance on ESPN’s popular Mike & Mike in the Morning radio show.
“It’s been pretty crazy, but it’s awesome for us to be winning games,” Brady said Tuesday on the telephone, describing a campus that’s enmeshed in all the March Madness hoopla that surrounds the U.S. national championship tournament.
Heslip is just glad to be a part of it after getting the runaround the previous year at Boston College, the school where he chose to play basketball after starring at Nelson High School in Burlington.
Heslip is the son of Jody and Tom Heslip. Jody teaches at Nelson while Tom, a successful businessman, was a former all-Canadian basketball player at the University of Guelph in 1980.
Brady’s uncle is Jay Triano, who starred for the Canadian national team for 11 years, and for three seasons was the head coach of the NBA’s Toronto Raptors.
Last season was supposed to be Heslip’s freshman year at BC, but when Al Skinner, the coach who recruited him, was fired before the season started, things changed. New coach Steve Donahue met with Heslip and bluntly told him that he didn’t think much of his potential.
“He just didn’t have confidence in me to play at that level and I just felt it was best for me to move on,” Heslip said.
Heslip landed at Baylor, where he had to sit out the year to satisfy the NCAA’s transfer rules. He put the year to good use, practising with the Bears and trimming 20 pounds off his admittedly beefy frame to bring his weight down to 180.
Bob Stacey, his coach at Nelson, said the year off was a blessing in disguise.
“Over that time, that shot [the three-pointer]got easier for him,” Stacey said. “But he was not in the shape that he’s in now. A lot of hard work is starting to pay off.”
“I was overweight, that’s just plain and simple what it was,” Heslip said. “I needed to get down and I did. And now I’m learning to play at this level.”
Against Colorado, Heslip finished with a career-high 27 points, his nine threes (on 12 attempts) a single-game NCAA tournament record for Baylor, and just two away from tying the overall tournament record.
Baylor is favoured over Xavier and many are forecasting an appearance in the Final Four in New Orleans this month as a distinct possibility.
Heslip is just soaking it all up.
“It’s a dream come true,” he said. “I think every Canadian kid dreams about playing in the NCAA tournament. And I just feel really blessed to be a part of a group that gets to do it.”
Editor's note: an earlier version of this story published online and in Wednesday's newspaper named an incorrect host city for the Final Four. The games will be played in New Orleans, not Atlanta.