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Canadians dreaming big at NCAA March Madness

North Vancouver's Robert Sacre of the Gonzaga Bulldogs celebrates his team's 75-63 victory over the Saint Mary's Gaels in the the championship game of the West Coast Conference Basketball tournament at the Orleans Arena March 7, 2011 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

Ethan Miller/2011 Getty Images

Greg Francis is three times lucky when it comes to basketball.

He is one of just a handful of Canadians who, when asked to choose their favourite athletic achievements, has to decide between a scintillating, nationally televised individual performance in the NCAA Tournament -- Francis scored 26 points in a near upset of then No.1-seed UNC while at Fairfield in 1997 -- and being part of one of the great teams in the Canadian history: the 2000 Olympic team that went 5-2 in Sydney.

Now, in his role as the men's junior national team Francis is in position to benefit from a remarkable depth of quality emerging in Canadian basketball.

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"What it says to me is we have guys who are world class players for their age," he said. "As Canadians when it comes to basketball we can be kind of hard on ourselves and always look for what's not right, but we are getting some players who can make a splash."

The ball goes up on the NCAA tournament Thursday (not counting the play-in games) and 20 Canadians will be taking part, which most believe is a record.

But that only begins to tell the story of Canadian prowess.

I've been following the efforts of Ray Bala who tracks Canadians playing down south for CanballReport at and the trends have been pretty remarkable.

Certainly the likes of Tristan Thompson - who I wrote about for the Globe here - and his university of Texas teammate Cory Joseph deserve a lot of attention, but they're not alone among impact Canadians in D1.

Ray put together a list of Canadians who have earned post-season recognition, and it's pretty extensive. It's not like Canadians have never excelled at the D1 level before; but few in basketball circles can recall an era when so many were among the best players on their teams or in their conference. Among them:

Olu Ashalu, Louisiana Tech, WAC all-defensive team and honourable mention conference all-star

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Bryson Johnson - Bucknell, 2nd team All Patriot League

Cory Joseph - Texas, Big 12 all-rookie; honourable mention all-conference, freshman all-american 2nd team.

Andrew Nicholson , St. Bonaventure, Atlantic 10, first-team.

Jahenns Manigat - Creighton, All Freshman, first team, Missouri Valley Conference

Nem Mitrovic - Portland, 1st team, West Coast Conference

Tyler Murray - Wagner College, 1st Team All Northeast Conference

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Dwight Powell - Stanford, All Rookie 1st Team Pac 10

Rob Sacre - Gonzaga, All West Coast Conference

Tristan Thompson - Texas, Big 12 rookie of the year, Big 12 All-conference 2nd team, finalist for NCAA freshman of the year, 1st team freshman all-American.

And the talent keeps coming, as Myck Kabongo, Khem Birch and Kyle Wiltjer (son of former national team player Greg Wiltjer) were all selected for the McDonald's All-American game for the top seniors in the United States and are headed to elite programs in (Texas, Pittsburgh and Kentucky, respectively) while Kevin Pangos may start as a freshman at Gonzaga where he'll be one of four Canadians on the roster.

Andrew Wiggins, heading into Grade 11 and likely going to the US to finish high school, might be the most talented of the bunch and there are many others projected to be significan Division 1 players.

This is a long way from the days when the common story for a Canadian kid heading south was that they went to schools that were a little above their level; got recruited over; sat on the bench for significant parts of their career or transferred and often came home with less game and confidence than they left with.

There are a number of theories as to why, but I asked Francis for his insights, given he's coached or will coach several of the players who fit into this category in his role with Canada Basketball:

Experience: A significant factor, according to Francis. "There are more places to play and more place to play at a high level, sooner. There are more ways to watch the game and see the way it's played. The club programs have really grown. When guys like myself or Rowan Barrett - a lot of guys on the team that went to Sydney - were growing up, we didn't necessarily have that. There were guys on that team who didn't really start playing basketball seriously until they were 13, 14, 15 years old and we were playing in the Olympics [10 years later] That doesn't happen any more. Guys are playing the game better at younger ages than ever before."

Perspective: "We have kids who are playing internationally at younger ages. I think Canada Basketball is doing a better job identifying players sooner and now we have a Cadet team, for example, so you have kids playing against the best in from other countries when they're 15 or 16 years old. All of a sudden these kids realize that they're world class players, so why shouldn't they be top Division 1 players? Why shouldn't they play professionally? I think it's different mindset now."

Exposure: "By the time our best players are ready to play Division 1 they've played in the United States five or 10 times a year playing AAU basketball; they've been to the camps against the other top guys. ... That's where guys like Ro Russell [whose club team Grassroots Canada, Thompson, Joseph and several other top Canadian prospects have played for]and others have done a good job getting opportunities for players. And obviously some guys have benefited from playing high school basketball in the US. It's not for everybody, but for the very top guys getting out and playing against the other top players is a good thing. For those guys when they are ready to choose a school their mindset is that they're high major guys and when they get there they're ready to play and make an impact right away."

NOTE: I am taking a few days off, hope everyone enjoys the tournament. Back next week!

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