Many of the top Canadians in the NCAA basketball ranks are former teammates or rivals from high school or club competition.
Not Mfiondu Kabengele and Brandon Clarke, though.
Fresh off big performances during the first two rounds of March Madness, Florida State’s Kabengele, of Burlington, Ont., squares off with Clarke, who was born in Vancouver and raised in Arizona, and his Gonzaga Bulldogs in the Sweet 16 opener on Thursday night.
At the pregame news conference on Wednesday, Kabengele was asked if he had any connection to Clarke. He proceeded to offer a little Canadian geography lesson to reporters.
“I’m from Ontario, Canada, which is east and he was on the West Coast and I never had an opportunity to see him and when I came through college he came out of nowhere,” the 6-foot-10 forward said. “I’m proud he’s a fellow Canadian and he’s playing really well.”
So, too, is Kabengele, who averaged 21.5 points and 8.5 rebounds in the first two rounds last week.
Clarke had one of the top individual outings of the tournament in the second round. The 6-foot-8 forward set a Gonzaga tournament scoring record with 36 points and added eight rebounds and five blocks in a win over Baylor.
Clarke sat out last season after transferring to Gonzaga after two years at San Jose State.
“It was something that was actually really, really tough on me,” he said. “Obviously not playing games and just having to sit on the bench every game and watch was something I don’t really like.
“With that being said, I had lots of days where I was just training, lifting every day, shooting every day, I would still practise every day. ... It was also nice because I could learn Gonzaga’s system more, but it was lots of, you know, days where I couldn’t travel so I would just be back at home working out.”
Kabengele and Clarke are two of seven Canadians left in the men’s tournament.
The second Sweet 16 game in the Anaheim regional also includes a Canadian with Michigan’s Ignas Brazdeikis of Oakville, Ont., facing Texas Tech.
Another all-Canadian matchup goes Friday when Duke’s R.J. Barrett of Mississauga faces a Virginia Tech team featuring Toronto’s Nickeil Alexander-Walker and Jonathan Kabongo in Washington, D.C.
QUITE A RISE
Tennessee coach Rick Barnes thinks Kyle Alexander has come a long way.
When asked about his 6-foot-11 senior forward from Milton, Ont., before Thursday night’s Sweet 16 game against Purdue in Louisville, Ky., Barnes was full of praise for Alexander’s development.
“[Associate head] coach [Rob] Lanier used to have a video of a baby giraffe being born, wobbling and falling all over the place. That was Kyle Alexander,” Barnes said. “... I wish we could have red-shirted him at Tennessee, because I think his best basketball – I know his best basketball is ahead of him – and he’ll be one of those guys in a couple years, people are going to say, ‘Wow, this guy’s really come into his own.’
“Because physically, once he continues to get the weight he needs on him, Kyle’s a worker, he’s not afraid to put time in at the gym. But he’s still young to the game.”
Barnes, while still coaching at Texas in 2015, was recruiting Alexander to play there, just like he did with current Canadian NBAers Tristan Thompson and Cory Joseph. After being fired at Texas, Barnes stayed in touch with Alexander and brought him to Tennessee.
Alexander, who didn’t start playing basketball until high school, figures to spend some time guarding 7-foot-3 Purdue centre Matt Haarms on Thursday.
“Just against any post player, you’ve got to come ready to play,” said Alexander, one of only 12 Tennessee players in program history to make more than 100 starts. “Especially somebody who has a size advantage on you, you’ve just got to come ready to play, got to be ready to compete.”
Four of 21 Canadian women in the NCAA tournament survived the opening two rounds.
The women’s tournament gets going again on Friday with Arizona State’s Taya Hanson of Kelowna, B.C., in action. Her team faces Mississippi State.
North Carolina State’s Aislinn Konig of Surrey, B.C., averaging 10.7 points a game in her junior season, returns to the floor Saturday for a game against Iowa.
Stanford, featuring Alyssa Jerome of Toronto and Mikaela Brewer of Barrie, Ont., goes against Missouri State on Saturday.