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The Globe and Mail

Upsets allow unheralded Canadians to shine in March Madness

Stanford forward Dwight Powell drives to the basket against Kansas forward Perry Ellis in second half action during a Third Round NCAA Tournament game between Kansas and Stanford on Sunday, March 23, 2014, at the Scottrade Center in St. Louis.

Chris Lee/AP

Instead of a Sweet 16 clash between college freshmen stars Tyler Ennis and Andrew Wiggins, a totally different matchup of Canadian talent will take place on the March Madness stage Thursday night.

Many had envisioned that the two projected NBA lottery picks would be facing off in the regional semi-finals of the NCAA basketball tournament, but both the Syracuse Orange and Kansas Jayhawks – the No. 3- and No. 2-seeded teams in their bracket, respectively – were upset last weekend by teams that are also led by starting Canadians. Now the giant-slayers will meet: 10th-seeded Stanford takes on 11th-seeded Dayton. And it's a chance to focus on Dayton's Dyshawn Pierre and Stanford's Stefan Nastic and Dwight Powell, three other Canadian stars with bright futures.

The two Toronto-area players have been instrumental for Stanford, which frustrated Kansas with a tight zone defence on Sunday, holding Wiggins to just four points and pulling off the school's biggest upset victory ever.

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Nastic is a 6-foot-11 red-shirt junior centre who was born in Novi Sad, Serbia, and whose family moved to Thornhill, Ont., when he was a toddler. He played at Thornhill Secondary School and for local clubs Toronto Five-O and CIA Bounce. He spent his summers training in Europe from age 13 within the Serbian national team system under coaches who once trained players such as Vlade Divac and Toni Kukoc.

"For some players, the best opportunity is to go to a U.S. prep school, but for me, I chose to stay in Thornhill and train really hard there, play as much as possible and be near my family," said Nastic by phone from Stanford, Calif., where the team was practising early this week before leaving for Memphis.

Like many big men developed in Europe, Nastic has meticulously worked on his passing, dribbling and outside shooting and he hopes to some day play for Serbia in the Olympics. The Stanford political science major intimidated on defence and had 10 points and a huge block in the win over Kansas.

Nastic grew up a fan of the NBA's Toronto Raptors – and of Vince Carter specifically – and related to a game that fit his towering frame. His 6-foot-10 teammate Powell can relate, also growing up in Toronto during the "Vinsanity" heyday.

Powell is a senior forward drawing the attention of NBA general managers, a matchup nightmare who has notched seven double-doubles this year. His 15 points led Stanford versus the Jayhawks. He first took up the sport on Toronto playgrounds and then at Toronto's Earl Haig Secondary School before leaving for IMG Academy, a world-renowned multisport boarding school and training institute in Bradenton, Fla.

"I didn't think I could get the exposure I needed and face the competition I needed to grow like I wanted to back home," said Powell, who was named this year's Pac-12 scholar-athlete of the year. "I won't lie – I was shell-shocked when I first got to IMG, living away from home, not knowing anyone, training every day, but I wouldn't trade the experience for anything, and it gave me the coaching and skill development and exposure I needed to get to this level."

Powell has also developed within Canada Basketball's national programs, notably as a key contributor on the 2013 development team that played to a 15-2 record last summer and beat the American development team four times. He considered turning pro in 2013 but stayed to finish his degree in science and technology – and take a last stab at Stanford's first NCAA Tournament appearance since 2008.

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"Many are only comfortable playing close to the basket or just shooting outside, but he's very unique in his abilities because he can do both," said Rowan Barrett, assistant general manager and executive vice-president of Canada's senior men's program. "That is something that has him potentially on the NBA draft board right now."

Barrett says Dayton's Canadian forward Pierre has also piqued the interest of NBA teams. The sophomore from Whitby, Ont., led the Flyers with 14 points as they toppled Syracuse on Saturday, two days after earning a last-second upset win over sixth-seeded Ohio State.

Pierre chose to play a full high school basketball career at Anderson Collegiate Vocational Institute in Whitby, where he won back-to-back high school provincial championships.

"Dyshawn had games for us on our U-19 team where he had, like, 30 points and 12 rebounds in the world championships; he was just tremendous for us," said Barrett.

Of the 27 Canadians who started the men's NCAA tournament last week, eight play on. In addition to Powell, Nastic and Pierre, they are: Nik Stauskas with second-seeded Michigan; Melvin Ejim and Nazareth Long on third-seeded Iowa State; and Kenny Chery and Brady Heslip with sixth-seeded Baylor.

"In the past, we had athletes who had been playing for only four or five years before they went to the NCAA, where they would face U.S. players who had been playing basketball since they were small kids," said Barrett. "Now, our kids are starting younger too, training hard early on, playing for our various Canada Basketball teams and going to AAU tournaments in the U.S, playing against many of those American kids they'll face in college. So a decent number of our players are going down to U.S. universities not just happy to get a scholarship, but going there to lead their teams."

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