Andrea Thompson doesn't have to think hard when asked when her son got infected with March Madness.
She remembers her oldest boy sitting mesmerized in front of the television set in her Brampton, Ont., home not long ago, turning to her and saying: "I want to do that Mommy, I want go to one of those big schools, I'm going to play in the NBA, that's a nice life, Mommy," she said, laughing now. "Tristan's a go-getter. If he wants something, he goes and gets it."
Mother knows best.
This week, her 6-foot-9, 235-pound, 20-year-old son will be the one doing the memorizing for a rapt television audience as the National Collegiate Athletic Association basketball tournament - one of the biggest sports events of the year - kicks off with Thompson as the freshman star with the University of Texas, among the favourites to emerge as national champions in Houston on April 4.
Thompson has put together the best freshman seasons in Division I history by a Canadian and is the standard bearer for a strong showing by Canadian players south of the border.
"It's a dream come true, I've been blessed," Thompson said in a telephone interview. "Coach [Texas coach Rick Barnes]told me if I put my time in the gym my game would blossom and I've been in the gym every day since I got here."
He is one of five nominees for the Wayman Tisdale Award as the NCAA's best freshman and has already been recognized as the Big 12 conference's freshman of the year.
Through 33 games this season, the combo forward scored an average of 13.3 points - second on the Longhorns while leading them in rebounding with 7.8 a game. He's also established himself as tireless in his pursuit of the ball on the offensive end. He led the Big 12 with 3.8 offensive rebounds a game in the regular season and set a career-high with 10 in the semi-finals of the Big 12 tournament last Friday. Foul trouble limited him as No. 10 Texas lost to No. 2 Kansas in the final Saturday.
They will open the NCAA tournament as the No. 4 seed in the West region on Friday against Memphis.
Those that know Thompson and his game best say his style is no coincidence.
"Tristan is a different kind of cat," says Ro Russell, who helped bring Thompson along by integrating him into his elite Grassroots AAU club team in Grade 9, putting him on the floor against such current NBA stars as O.J. Mayo, Eric Gordon and Michael Beasley on the ultra-competitive summer circuit. "He plays just the way he is; he's not going to wait around for nobody. If he couldn't get a ride to the gym, he took the bus. He's not going to wait for someone to give him the ball, he's going to go get it. He's going to run the floor and open up so wide that they have to give it to him."
Russell sat down with Thompson and his family to help him chart a path that has trended steadily upward. It involved leaving home to face better competition in the United States, first at St. Benedict's Prep in New Jersey and then to Findlay Prep in Las Vegas where Thompson - along with current Texas freshman starter Cory Joseph of Pickering, Ont. (himself an all-rookie selection in the Big 12) - was part of two national high school championship teams.
As a high school junior, he was the No. 1-rated prospect in the United States.
Part of that plan, Russell said, was to become the first Canadian to go "one-and-done" - jump to the NBA after spending the minimum one year at college.
Both Thompson and his mother said it's too early to talk about the possibility of declaring for the NBA draft. "To be honest, I haven't thought about it," he said.
But draft observers say it's far more likely after such an accomplished season. Thompson is now rated as a possible mid-to-late first-round pick.
"[Entering the draft]seems to be the way he's leaning based on the information we're getting," said Jonathan Givony of DraftExpress.com, a respected NBA draft site.
There is work to be done first, such as helping Texas to a national championship - a sure résumé polisher.
For Thompson, it would be a case of stepping through the looking glass as he easily remembers the hoopla that caught his eye not that long ago as he watched the tournament at home, reeling off big name players he followed - Carmelo Anthony (Syracuse), J.J Reddick (Duke), Tyrus Thomas (LSU) - or memorable upsets (Virginia Commonwealth knocking off Duke).
Now he's the one being watched. His mother is going to be in the stands seeing his dream unfold in person. It feels good. "A lot of guys before didn't get this opportunity, " he said. "But hopefully I'm showing Canadian kids you can do it."
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