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Canada's Ryan Nembhard marches into the NCAA madness with the Gonzaga Bulldogs


Ryan Nembhard is ready to perform on the biggest stage in NCAA basketball.

The Aurora, Ont., native and his Gonzaga Bulldogs — the fifth seed in the Midwest Region — open March Madness on Thursday against the 12th-seeded McNeese State Cowboys. It will be the Bulldogs’ 25th straight appearance at the big dance, but it will be Nembhard's first tournament with Gonzaga.

“I feel like I just rise to the (occasion),” said Nembhard, who said. “I like big games, I like big moments and I like to play my best basketball when the stakes are at the highest.

“I definitely love playing in March, I love the whole tournament atmosphere. I love just how important every game is, win or go home. It's just something that I live for and something I really enjoy playing in I can't wait to help have another great run this year.”

Nembhard transferred to Gonzaga after two years at Creighton, where he helped lead the Blue Jays to an Elite Eight appearance last season. He saw the move to the school in Spokane, Wash., as an opportunity to blossom at a major program, having witnessed his older brother, Andrew, enjoy much of his college success with the Bulldogs.

Andrew Nembhard, now a second-year guard for the NBA’s Indiana Pacers, transferred to Gonzaga for his final two years of college, after spending his first two at Florida.

“Obviously Ryan and Andrew are their own people and it's very important that that's acknowledged. But after having Andrew here for two years, there was zero questions about how much we wanted another Nembhard,” Gonzaga assistant coach Brian Michaelson said.

“Elite, elite point guards, slightly different in how they play, but both elite-level point guards and we know the importance of having an elite-level point guard.”

Nembhard and the Bulldogs have played some of their best basketball of late. The six-foot, 175-pound junior point guard had five double-doubles as Gonzaga went 9-2 in its last 11 contests entering the tournament.

“It's been a learning process,” said Nembhard, averaging career highs of 12.9 points, 4.1 rebounds and 6.7 assists across 32 games this year. “We were all just getting used to each other while trying to figure out everything.

“(We) Started slow and then as the season went on, started to learn how to play more with each other and learn how to win close games. I feel like we're just peaking at the right time … and I'm playing my best basketball at the right time.”

Nembhard was one of three transfers who joined Gonzaga ahead of the 2023-24 season.

“Ryan's been huge, he's fit in from day one. He's a great competitor. He's a winner, but he doesn't have an ego,” Michaelson said. “His demeanour and his personality allowed him to come in and mesh really well with that group and he worked really hard at it.

“I think earlier, there was times that it wasn't quite as fluid as you wanted. It was a little more up and down and I think we've really found that consistency over the last six weeks.”

Gonzaga (25-7) faced tough competition this season and dealt with some doubts, especially during four losses between Dec. 9 and Jan. 11.

Entering the tournament, Nembhard believes his team is underrated and capable of being a threat to any team.

“We've heard the noise all year about just being off, … Gonzaga not having it anymore,” he said. “So I think we all have that chip on our shoulder. We think people just don't believe in us.

“We want to prove so many people wrong.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 18, 2024.