The green-and-yellow University of Oregon Ducks, one of the top teams in U.S. college basketball’s March Madness, have a distinctly red-and-white hue.
Led by Dillon Brooks, a junior from Mississauga who ranks among the top players in college basketball, and Dylan Ennis, a graduate student from Brampton, the Ducks are the No. 3 seed in the Midwest region heading into Friday afternoon’s first-round game against No. 14 Iona College Gaels.
Until last Friday, the Ducks had an even greater Canadian complexion, but Chris Boucher, a senior from Montreal, injured his knee. Oregon’s three Canadians had accounted for almost half the team’s scoring.
Oregon’s Final Four hopes may have been diminished – 6-foot-10 Boucher was a scoring, rebounding and defensive force – but Brooks and Ennis will lead the push into the tournament. Brooks, a 6-foot-7 forward, was chosen earlier this month as Pac-12 player of the year. He also landed on the list of 15 finalists for the Wooden award as collegiate player of the year.
The team depends on his heroics: Brooks has hit several game-winning buzzer beaters this season.
“They call me clutch,” Brooks said this week. “It’s a confidence thing.”
The challenge now, with Boucher out, is to do at least as well as last March, when Oregon was a No. 1 seed in the West region and reached the Elite Eight. Last Saturday, the team demonstrated resilience without Boucher in the Pac-12 tournament final, staying close with Arizona (ranked No. 4 in the final AP poll and a No. 2 seed in the West) before losing by three points. The loss dropped Oregon’s record to 29-5.
Having lost Boucher, Oregon is considered as a potential bracket buster, possibly upended by Iona. That said, Barack Obama, who has been good at picking the early rounds, has Oregon penned in to reach the Sweet 16.
Some have said the Final Four could still be realistic – noting that when Boucher wasn’t on the floor this season, Oregon still played well offensively and defensively. But to get there, the Ducks could face the Midwest’s No. 2 seed, Louisville, and then potentially No. 1 seed Kansas, in a game played in Kansas City.
Oregon’s Canadian roots reach back a decade, when top players began to emerge from the Toronto area.
Mike Mennenga, an Oregon assistant coach and key recruiter, was living in Buffalo at the time and in between jobs. On weekends, he would drive up to work with CIA Bounce, the elite club team for teenagers co-founded by Tony McIntyre, father to Dylan Ennis (and Tyler Ennis, Dylan’s younger brother and today a guard for the Los Angeles Lakers).
Brooks, playing for CIA Bounce, holds a distinct early impression of Mennenga from those days.
He remembered driving to the hoop for a layup. “I swooped in to the rim and [Mike] stood me up,” Brooks said last month. “I knew right then exactly the type of person he was. He was getting me ready.”
Brooks and Dylan Ennis were raw prospects but Mennenga saw fire in them.
“They were so determined to succeed,” Mennenga said in an interview.
Beyond the tournament, the NBA is potentially next for Brooks. He considered the draft last year before returning to school. Brooks has been forecast as a possible second-round draft choice in June, as had been Boucher.
Canada continues to be important for Oregon. One of the university’s important recruits for next season is Abu Kigab from St. Catharines, Ont.
Dana Altman, Oregon’s head coach, and Mennenga recently were in the Toronto area. Altman visits several times a year, and Mennenga more often.
Competition for Canadian talent has intensified. McIntyre, director of operations at the Athlete Institute’s basketball academy north of Toronto, figures upward of a hundred Division I coaches visited his gym this season.
Mennenga benefits from a long history – and a display of success, once players arrive at Oregon. Mennenga, too, is considered one of the best recruiters, as ranked by ESPN.
“We feel we have an intimate connection,” Mennenga said of Oregon and Canadian hoops. “And we’ve proven we work well together.”Report Typo/Error