Canadians in the NCAA Tournament

In a deep field of contenders, the future of Canadian basketball will be on display in the 2019 NCAA Tournament with a mix of established, draft-ready stars, role-players and up-and-comers.

There are 21 Canadians participating in this season’s March Madness.

Just as Leo Rautins, Steve Nash and Rick Fox did before them and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Jamal Murray and Andrew Wiggins more recently, players like RJ Barrett, Brandon Clarke and Luguentz Dort have the opportunity to make their names in March Madness before heading to the draft and, ultimately, the NBA.

Winning an NCAA title has been an elusive prize for Canadians over the years as only five Canadians have achieved the feat – Mike Brkovich with Michigan State in 1979, Jamaal Magloire on Kentucky in 1999, Dave Thomas with MSU in 2000, Denham Brown as a member of UCONN in 2004 and, most recently, Kyle Wiltjer with Kentucky in 2012.

The road to the Final Four in Minneapolis will be an arduous one, but the Canadians in this year’s edition of the Big Dance just might have what it takes to claim college basketball’s top prize.

RJ Barrett

(1) Duke - Freshman - 6'7, 202 lbs
Mississauga, ON - Forward

22.9 PPG, 7.5 RPG, 4.1 APG
ESPN Draft Ranking: #2
1st Round: vs (16) TBD. Fri March 22nd @ 7:10pm

Barrett has lived up to his considerable hype with Coach K’s team this season, finishing as runner-up to teammate Zion Williamson for ACC Player of the Year. Barrett and Duke enter the Tournament as one of the presumptive favourites – especially with the return of Williamson – and seek a sixth national title.

Though they’ll work together to achieve that goal now, Barrett and Williamson will then battle each other to see who will end up as the top pick in this June’s NBA Draft. After that, look for Barrett to be a member of Team Canada’s entry this summer in the 2019 FIBA World Cup of Basketball in China.

Brandon Clarke

(1) Gonzaga - Junior - 6'8, 215 lbs
Vancouver, BC - Forward

16.5 PPG, 8.4 RPG, 1.8 APG
ESPN Draft Ranking: #20
1st Round: vs (16) TBD. Thu, March 21st at 7:27pm

Clarke and the Bulldogs head into March Madness coming off a stunning upset in the WCC final when the top-ranked Zags were defeated by Saint Mary’s, 60-47. While this might affect their seeding, the goal remains the same for Mark Few’s team as they reach the Tournament for the 20th year in a row – win the whole thing.

The Bulldogs are no longer a plucky underdog and now a known commodity. Led by the two-headed monster of Rui Hachimura and Clarke, the Zags have the opportunity to win a first national title. The closest they’ve come was in 2016, losing in the final to UNC.

As for Clarke personally, a strong showing in the tournament could elevate his stock in the 2019 NBA Draft.

Ignas Brazdeikis

(2) Michigan - Freshman - 6'7, 215 lbs
Oakville, ON - Forward

15.1 PPG, 5.2 RPG, 0.9 APG
ESPN Draft Ranking: #86
1st Round: vs (15) Montana. Thu, March 21st @ 9:20pm

Fresh off being named the Big Ten Freshman of the Year, Iggy Brazdeikis has a decision to make as he and last season’s finalists, start the Big Dance. Brazdeikis has starred for the Wolverines this season, becoming the 11th highest-scoring freshman in the history of the program.

This will be a pivotal tournament for Brazdeikis and could go a long way in determining his next step. His draft stock has oscilated over the course of the year, projecting as a first-round pick at one point and now thought to be a borderline second-round selection if he were to declare. A big tournament could make Brazdeikis decide to take his chances at the pro level, while the opposite might force him to return to Ann Arbor for his sophomore year.

Mfiondu Kabengele

(4) Florida State - Sophomore - 6'10, 250 lbs
Burlington, ON - Forward

12.9 PPG, 5.7 RPG, 1.5 BPG
ESPN Draft Ranking: n/a
1st Round: vs (13) Vermont. Thu, March 21st @ 2:00pm

The nephew of Naismith Basketball Hall of Famer Dikembe Mutombo, Kabengele was named the ACC’s top bench player last week, winning the Sixth Man of the Year Award. Remarkably, Kabengele led the Seminoles in scoring despite only averaging 20.9 minutes a night, and was the only bench player in any Power 5 Conference to achieve that feat.

The ‘Noles are coming off an Elite Eight appearance last season and anticipate making another long run this year, battle-tested from their conference schedule against an especially deep ACC. FSU needs two wins to match the program’s most ever over a three-year stretch in the tournament, set in 1991 to 1993 with teams featuring Bobby Sura, Charlie Ward and Sam Cassell.

Nickeil Alexander-Walker

(4) Virginia Tech - Sophomore - 6'5, 205 lbs
Toronto, ON - Guard

16.6 PPG, 4.1 RPG, 4.0 APG
ESPN Draft Ranking: #18
1st Round: vs (13) Saint Louis. Fri, March 22nd @ 9:57pm

The cousin of Los Angeles Clippers rookie star and Kentucky product Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Alexander-Walker has taken up the family mantle in the NCAA this season and shone. Leading the Hokies in scoring, Alexander-Walker was rewarded with an All-ACC Third Team nod.

Though they were one-and-done over the past two tournaments, these are halcyon days for the Hokies program, marking the first time in the program’s history that Tech has appeared in three straight March Madnesses.

For Alexander-Walker personally, the tournament is a momentous one. All year long, he has projected as close to a lottery pick if he were to declare. If the Hokies are able to go on a run and he helps lead the way, look for Alexander-Walker to push himself into the top-10 pick conversation.

Marial Shayok

(6) Iowa State - Senior - 6'6, 198 lbs
Ottawa, ON - Guard

18.6 PPG, 4.9 RPG, 2.0 APG
ESPN Draft Ranking: #100
1st Round: vs (11) Ohio State. Fri, March 22nd @ 9:50pm

March Madness is nothing new for him, but this will be Marial Shayok’s first trip to the Big Dance as a member of the Cyclones. Shayok transferred to the Big 12 school after three years with Tony Bennett’s Virginia program. After being a bench piece on deep Hoos teams, Shayok shone in his first year as a starter, leading the team in both scoring and minutes.

Shayok won’t take anything for granted in March Madness, having been a member of good Virginia teams that failed to live up to lofty tournament expectations, including last season’s edition that became the first ever No. 1 seed to lose to a No. 16. Both the Cyclones and Shayok hope that his nagging toe injury won’t be too much of an impediment heading into March Madness.

Lindell Wigginton

(6) Iowa State - Sophomore - 6'2, 189 lbs
Dartmouth, NS - Guard

13.5 PPG, 4.1 RPG, 2.2 APG
ESPN Draft Ranking: n/a
1st Round: vs (11) Ohio State. Fri, March 22nd @ 9:50pm

After a breakthrough freshman year saw Lindell Wigginton test the NBA Draft waters (he, obviously, decided to return to school), his follow-up didn’t go the way the soon-to-be 21-year-old guard had planned, but it appears to be working out for him. Last year, Wigginton became just the fourth freshman in program history to start every game and his highlight-reel dunks had him regularly featured on sports networks the continent over.

He started his second season much in the same vein, but an injury forced him into a bench role upon his return. After initial unhappiness, Wigginton began to thrive, eventually earning the Big 12 Sixth Man of the Year Award and is once again a key part of the Cyclones’ offence as they head into a seventh consecutive tournament, extending a record streak for the program.

Andrew Nembhard

(10) Florida - Freshman - 6'5, 191 lbs
Aurora, ON - Guard

8.1 PPG, 2.8 RPG, 5.3 APG
ESPN Draft Ranking: n/a
1st Round: vs (7) Nevada. Thu, March 21st @ 6:50pm

RJ Barrett might have headed to Duke, but his Monteverde Academy teammate Andrew Nembhard stayed put in Florida and joined the Gators. While his freshman season might have been overshadowed by Barrett’s, Nembhard quietly put together a more than respectable campaign and posted the second-most assists by a first-year player in the program’s history.

Nembhard’s most impressive showing might have been a February win over the Alabama Crimson Tide when he scored 21 points on 9-for-9 shooting, becoming the first player to go 9-for-9 in a conference game since 1999. His exploits were rewarded with a spot on the SEC All-Freshman Team. Coming out of a top-heavy SEC, Nembhard and the Gators know that a deep run in the tournament won’t come easy.

Oshae Brissett

(8) Syracuse - Sophomore - 6'8, 210 lbs
Mississauga, ON - Forward

12.4 PPG, 7.5 RPG, 1.8 APG
ESPN Draft Ranking: n/a
1st Round: vs (9) Baylor. Thu, March 21st @ 9:57pm

As a 10th-place team in the ACC and an No. 11 seed in the tournament (after defeating ASU in a First Four game), the Orange ended up winning a pair of games last March, downing No. 6 TCU and then, in a major upset, No. 2 MSU. Oshae Brissett got his taste of March Madness and is back for more. Brissett was a key contributor for Jim Boeheim’s team this season as its third-highest scorer and team leader in rebounding.

As a shooter, Brissett has moved his game closer to the basket and has grown less reliant on the three-ball. After the tournament, the question becomes where Brissett will ply his trade next year – back in the Carrier Dome or will he attempt to go pro?

Luguentz Dort

(11) Arizona State - Freshman - 6'4, 215 lbs
Montreal, QC - Guard

16.1 PPG, 4.3 RPG, 2.4 APG
ESPN Draft Ranking: #28
First Four: vs (11) St. John's. Wed, March 20th @ 9:10pm on TSN 1

Luguentz Dort wasn’t around to see it, but last season was a heartbreaker for ASU. Selected for a play-in game to become a No. 11 in the First Four, the Sun Devils fell to Florida and didn’t qualify for March Madness proper. Bobby Hurley’s team now gets its first crack at the tournament in five seasons with Dort playing a prominent role.

Dort starred in his first season in Tempe leading the team in scoring and in steals (1.6 per game). He was recognized by the conference, getting a nod on the All-Pac-12 Second Team and being named the Pac-12 Freshman of the Year. If Dort intends on entering the draft – most mocks currently have him as a second-round pick – he’s going to need to continue to improve on his shooting, which at one point dipped under .400 this season.