Kelly Olynyk, front, and Kevin Pangos, left, could go all the way with Gonzaga. (The Canadian Press)
No longer are the Canadian players holding down benches or getting limited playing time. Whereas a player at a top-flight school – like Jamaal Magloire at Kentucky – used to be rare, it is now becoming the norm. There are Canadian players in the starting lineups of at least 10 schools participating in March Madness. (A complete list of Canadian players in the tournament is available here.)
Here is a look at some of the best Canada has to offer this March:
Best player – Kelly Olynyk, Gonzaga.
The 7-foot junior from Kamloops, B.C., was one of the most improved players this season and the leader of the No. 1-ranked Bulldogs.
Olynyk averaged 17.5 points and 7.2 rebounds while being named a finalist for the Wooden Award, which goes to the NCAA’s best player. It’s all pretty impressive when you consider that he redshirted last year after averaging just 5.8 points as a sophomore. If he enters the NBA draft this year, he’s considered a potential first-round pick.
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Best NBA prospect – Anthony Bennett, UNLV.
Olynyk may be the best Canadian player in the NCAA right now, but Bennett is a close second. The Brampton, Ont., native was named to the freshman All-American team after averaging 16.1 points and 8.1 rebounds this season.
He’s an athletic freak with a solid inside-outside game that impresses NBA scouts. He’s a definite lottery pick, if he chooses to enter the NBA draft this year, and is currently ranked the sixth-best prospect by DraftExpress.
Best three-point shooter – Nik Stauskas, Michigan.
Here’s another freshman starring for a top team. The Mississauga native surprised almost everyone when he became a starting guard just seven games into his collegiate career. He has started every game for the Wolverines since then, shooting 44.9 per cent from beyond the arc.
Stauskas became a fan favourite in Ann Arbor this year, and a video he posted of him hitting 45-out-of-50 three pointers in his backyard in December went viral.
Best name – Grandy Glaze, Saint Louis.
Glaze is a sophomore from Toronto who averages 3.2 points and 2.7 rebounds, but he’s no bench warmer. The Billikens are 15-1 since Glaze was inserted into the starting lineup in January. Saint Louis was the surprise winner of the tough Atlantic-10 conference and is a trendy pick to make a Cinderella run.
The Toronto native checks in at an amazing 7-feet, 5-inches and carries 355 pounds on that large frame. Bhullar averaged just 10.2 points and 6.5 rebounds during the regular season, but has been a beast of late. In the Aggies’ WAC championship game win against UT-Arlington, Bhullar had 16 points, 15 rebounds and 5 blocks.
There may be more Bhullar to come, too. Sim has a brother in high school who is already 7’3” and 300 pounds.
Best bloodlines – Nick Wiggins, Wichita State.
The name should sound familiar to Canadian basketball fans. Wiggins, a junior guard from Toronto, is the son of Mitchell Wiggins, a first-round NBA draft pick, and Marita, a Canadian Olympian who won two silver medals at the 1984 Games.
More importantly, perhaps you’ve heard of his brother, Andrew. If not, even casual sports fans will know the name soon. Andrew Wiggins is the No. 1 high school basketball player in the United States, and is expected to be the No. 1 pick in the 2014 NBA draft with scouts comparing him to the likes of Kevin Durant and LeBron James.
Smartest player(s) – Laurent Rivard and Agunwa Okolie, Harvard.
The Ivy League doesn’t offer athletic scholarships, so you have to be good and smart to play at a school like Harvard. Rivard, a junior from Saint-Bruno, Que., is Harvard’s third-leading scorer and making his second consecutive appearance in the tournament. The Ivy League champs also boast Okolie, a freshman from Ajax, Ont.
Honourable mention: Melvin Ejim, Iowa State. Ejim, of Toronto, received the Big 12’s men’s basketball scholar-athlete award.
The last hurrah – Junior Cadougan, Marquette.
The guard from Toronto is in his senior season with the Golden Eagles and is a perfect four-for-four in NCAA tournament appearances. Cadougan improved his point totals in each of his four seasons at Marquette and won the Big East’s Sportsmanship Award.
The Golden Eagles, a No. 3 seed, are looking to improve on back-to-back appearances in the Sweet 16. Their opening-round game is against No. 14 Davidson, which features Vancouver’s Nike Cochran.
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Most Canadians – New Mexico State.
The Aggies boast four Canadians on their roster, three of whom are starters. The aforementioned Bhullar, Renaldo Dixon (Toronto), Daniel Mullings (Toronto), and Tyrone Watson (Hamilton) make up the Canadian quarter.
Mullings, a sophomore, was the Aggies’ leading scorer with 14.0 points per game while Watson (10.8) and Bhullar (10.2) were third and fourth, respectively.
Nex Mexico State takes on Saint Louis in its opening-round matchup, a game that will feature five Canadians seeing significant action.
Best chance to win it all – Olynyk and Kevin Pangos, Gonzaga.
We’ve mentioned Olynyk already, but Pangos has also been impressive in his sophomore season. The sweet shooter from Newmarket, Ont., averaged 11.5 points while shooting 42.2 per cent from beyond the arc. He has started all but one game (his first) since beginning his career at Gonzaga.
The Bulldogs are the No. 1 seed in the West region and boast a 31-2 record on the season. Their run to a potential Final Four will not be easy, however. To get to Atlanta they’ll have to beat the likes of Ohio State, the No. 2 seed, Kansas State and Wisconsin – who they could meet in the Sweet 16.
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