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Canada's Edey, Edwards set for starring roles in NCAA men's and women's Final Fours

Zach Edey Purdue Zach Edey - The Canadian Press

Zach Edey and Aaliyah Edwards will not only be playing vital roles on U.S. college basketball's grandest stage this weekend but will also be showcasing Canada's burgeoning young talent.

Edey will lead No. 1 Purdue against No. 11 NC State in the NCAA men's Final Four on Saturday, while Edwards, from Kingston, Ont., will take centre stage for No. 3 UConn against No. 1 Iowa on Friday in the women's national semifinal.

According to Canada Basketball President and CEO Michael Bartlett, having players like Edey and Edwards winning with top-ranked NCAA programs is just another example of how the Canadian game is gaining recognition on the international stage.

"This is, I think, the first few of many examples that you'll see in the next number of years where the young (Canadian) athlete is putting their college program on their back and lifting their college program to incredible heights," said Bartlett.

Edey has done just that this season.

The seven-foot-four senior centre from Toronto is a finalist and favourite to repeat as the winner of the John R. Wooden Award, which is handed out to the most outstanding player in U.S. college basketball. Edey became the first Canadian to ever win the Wooden award after sweeping all six major player of the year awards following his breakout 2022-23 season.

The Boilermakers have redeemed themselves this season after being on the wrong end of a major first-round upset in last year's tournament.

Edey, who leads the country with 25.0 points and is second with 12.2 rebounds per game, was named a consensus first-team all-American for the second year in a row.

He delivered a career-best performance with 40 points and 16 rebounds in Purdue's 72-66 victory against No. 2 Tennessee on Sunday, to advance to the Final Four.

"I'm really proud of him and I think he's venturing in unchartered territories," said Michael Meeks, Canadian senior men's team assistant coach. "It's one thing when you work with an athlete that has potential and then they garner some type of success … But when they do things that are unprecedented like he's doing — you know, he's going to finish as one of the all-time greatest college players ever. I don't think anybody can foresee things like that."

Edwards, meanwhile, has played a starring role next to 2021 player of the year Paige Bueckers at UConn. The six-foot-three senior forward is a two-time all-American, boasting career-high averages of 17.6 points and 9.3 rebounds for the Huskies.

UConn has dealt with a slew of injuries this season, but the storied program finds itself in its 15th Final Four over the last 16 years. Before the start of the tournament, Edwards declared for the upcoming WNBA draft where she's a projected first-round pick.

"One of the things I've always cherished or really valued about her is she shows up in the big moments," Canadian senior women's assistant coach Steve Baur said. "She's made for the pressure, made for the opportunity to win.

"I think she carries this confidence with her to deliver in those stages, but also has a very calm presence in those moments to bring others with her."

Edey and Edwards are expected to suit up for Canada's Olympic teams in Paris this summer.

Edey was part of the Canadian men's historic bronze-medal finish at the FIBA World Cup in September, while Edwards represented Canada at the FIBA AmeriCup tournaments in 2019 and 2023, as well as the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

Bartlett believes the experience they've gained from playing with the national teams, along with their successful runs in March Madness, sets them up for a promising summer ahead.

"It's very positive because you're seeing them be put in a position where they are 1A or 1B on the court for their program," he said. "And the reality is, they won't be 1A or 1B playing for us this summer … But having the knowledge that they know how to be a (top player) at a top quality program during moments that count is just going to accelerate our ability to put them into tougher situations in the Olympic tournament, tougher situations in future World Cup and Olympic events as well."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 4, 2024.