Canadians Look to Leave their Mark on March Madness Stage
The sport of basketball certainly continues to grow in the Great White North.
Whether its popularity is linked to the meteoric rise of the Toronto Raptors, or the enigma that was Vince Carter, or the exceptional career of one of the game’s greatest point guards Steve Nash, the game has grown in Canada tenfold.
Now, Canadians are looking to take the NCAA Basketball National Tournament by storm and leave their mark on March Madness history.
“A few years ago, you’d have Canadians playing, right? Now you’ve got Canadians not only playing, but making an impact,” said Raptors’ broadcaster and Syracuse Orange alum, Leo Rautins. “And it’s not just from Toronto. You’ve got kids from all over the country. Now you’ve got a kid from Nova Scotia (Lindell Wigginton of Iowa State), a kid from Calgary [Clayton Henry of New Mexico State], a kid from Vancouver [Brandon Clarke of Gonzaga].”
A quick look at the field and it is easy to see the impact that Canadians are poised to make in the tournament.
Toronto native R.J. Barrett is one of the game’s top prospect and a member of the a collegiate superteam in Duke. The consensus top-five lottery pick took the basketball world by storm when as a high school student, the teenagers led the Canadian Junior National team to a massive victory over the Americans, en route to a gold medal finish in the FIBA Under-19 World Cup.
“R.J., what scouts love about him is his compete level. He’s got a great motor. If it’s a big game, if there’s a big matchup, you know if it’s important and you’ve got to step up, he’s one of those guys that does,” said Rautins, former coach of Canada’s men’s team. “I’ve heard that from everyone who talks about him.”
The list of intriguing Canadian prospects doesn’t end at Barrett.
Virginia Tech’s Nickeil Alexander-Walker is as smooth and poised with the basketball as his cousin, Los Angeles Clippers guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. The tall and lanky guard out of Vaughan continued to see his draft stock rise after an impressive 20-point performance in the first round of the tournament against the Billikens.
While most of the noise surrounding the one-seed Gonzaga revolves around Rui Hachimura, Rautins claims 22-year Brandon Clarke to be one of the tournament’s most underrated stars.
“I’d call him a star,” Rautins said. “He was a big player with Gonzaga this year, but he’s still kind of under the radar. But this kid can jump out of the gym, he blocks shots, he changes games with his ability, so he’s one of the more underrated players that I don’t think enough people are talking about in this tournament.”
Ottawa native Marial Shayok of Iowa State is another big name to watch out for. Despite a first round exit at the hands of Ohio State, his 23-point outburst and offensive polish should have many Canadian basketball fans and NBA evaluators alike intrigued by the strong guard.
Claiming the Big 12 Tournament’s Most Outstanding Player honours, the 23-year old senior may have done enough this past season to establish himself as a draftable prospect come June.
Shayok was not the only Canadian star on the six-seed Iowa State Cyclones. Nova Scotia’s Lindell Wigginton is another draft prospect that made a name for himself this past season as a sophomore after opting to return to college after his freshman campaign.
“They had a tremendous season,” Rautins told The Associated Press. “These guys won the Big 12 tournament, and so they’re a team I think is going to be interesting to watch. Wigginton is quick, he attacks the basket, he’s really good in clutch situations, plays with a lot of energy. Shayok, same thing, just another kid who’s really explosive and plays hard. He’s an intense player.”
Ignas Brazdeikis of Michigan is another name to keep an eye on. Taking over the big man duties for Mo Wagner, the Big-10 Freshman of the Year is charismatic, can shoot, and is a big presence down underneath the basket.
“What’s interesting about him is you haven’t heard his name as far as draft picks, right?” Rautins said. “He’s had a good year, Michigan’s had a really good year, and if that team goes deep into the tournament, I wouldn’t be surprised if you’d see his name on the draft boards all of a sudden. Because he’s going to be an NBA player. The question is when.”
As the Round of 32 tips off, other Canadians to keep tabs on include Buffalo’s Dominic Johnson (Windsor, Ontario), Tennessee’s Kyle Alexander (Milton, Ontario), and Florida’s Andrew Nembhard (Aurora, Ontario).