With the main tournament set to kick off on Thursday, Sportsnet Magazine’s Dave Zarum takes a look at 10 Canadians to Watch during this year’s edition of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament.
Anthony Bennett, UNLV — With UNLV star Mike Moser slowed by injury, the standout freshman has carried the Runnin’ Rebels to a No. 5 seed with his breakout campaign that saw him lock up conference Freshman of the Year honours (he’s a favourite to win the national award as well). One of the most active, athletic bigs in the tournament, he’ll be the catalyst for the Rebels success, particularly in the knockout format. A strong outing from Bennett and UNLV can beat virtually any team in the tourney.
Kelly Olynyk, Gonzaga — The breakout player of the year in college basketball, Olynyk has been a revelation in Spokane, WA. He made what is an unpopular decision for many kids, and accepted a red-shirt after his sophomore season to work on his game, and you’re seeing the results every time he takes the court. His well-rounded game causes matchup nightmares for most opponents and is the biggest reason why the top-seeded Bulldogs can realistically make a deep run.
Junior Cadougan, Marquette — A perennial choice on this kind of list, Cadougan and the Golden Eagles have made it to the Madness in each of his four seasons in Milwaukee. A physical lead guard, Cadougan is enjoying his best scoring season to date and should do well in taking on a bigger role this time around.
Melvin Ejim, Iowa State — The 6’6′ junior has taken a big leap this season, specifically in the direction of the backboard. His 9.3 rebounds per game are nearly three more per game than in his previous two seasons with the Cyclones. Throw in more than 11 points, and nearly a steal, a block, two assists, and one three-pointer per game, and it’s clear Ejim’s all-round game will help to make Iowa State a legitimate upset threat.
Kevin Pangos, Gonzaga — With cerebral point guard skills picked up over a lifetime while growing up as the son of a coach, Pangos’ ball control and sound decision-making have been key to Gonzaga’s dominant season. But more than anything, it’s Pangos’ shooting ability- 42 per cent on 2.1 threes a game in 2012-13, including four or more in seven games — that sets him apart.
Khem Birch, UNLV — What a difference a year makes. Last season, the prized prospect from Montreal, one of the most anticipated freshmen in the NCAA in 2011-12, walked away from the University of Pittsburgh midseason, citing personal reasons. He’s reemerged as UNLV’s starting centre, where his post-defence and shot-blocking prowess has been counted upon all season. Birch took home Defensive Player of the Year award in his conference, averaging 2.6 blocks per game.
Sim Bhullar, New Mexico St. — One of four Canadians playing for New Mexico State this season, Bhullar is quite literally one of the tournaments biggest X-factors. Standing at a towering 7’5”, 355 pounds, the former Huntington Prep product is, as you’d imagine, a handful to deal with in the low post, and after averaging better than 63 per cent from the field and two blocks a game, Bhullar was named Freshman of the Year in his conference.
Bryson Johnson, Bucknell — The 6’2” senior has stepped up his game this season, with career-highs in both rebounds and assists, to go along with 11.1 ppg for the 28-5 Bucknell Bison. He’ll be leaned on heavily should Bucknell advance through the tournament, which suits him just fine — he led the team in minutes played this season.
Nik Stauskas, Michigan — The freshman shooting guard has been an integral part of the Wolverines multi-headed attack all season long, displaying a versatile game that goes well beyond his sweet stroke from deep. Intensely confident and showing dramatic improvement moving without the ball since arriving on the Michigan campus, he has the chance to break out with a strong performance or two this month.
Laurent Rivard, Harvard — Harvard’s preeminent deep threat, Rivard ranks seventh in school history for threes made — and he’s still just a sophomore. He’ll be looking to move up that list throughout the tourney, despite Harvard’s 14th seed.
In total, there are 27 Canadians playing in this year’s NCAA tournament. Here are the others:
Niko Cochran (Davidson), Renaldo Dixon (New Mexico State), Grandy Glaze (St. Louis), Stefan Jankovic (Missouri), Noel Jones (Syracuse), Troy Joseph (LIU), Naz Long (Iowa State), Chadrack Lufile (Wichita State), Jahenns Manigat (Creighton), Daniel Mullings (New Mexico State), Agunwa Okolie (Harvard), Taevaunn Prince (San Diego St.), Patrick Steeves (Harvard), Maurice Walker (Minnesota), Tyrone Watson (New Mexico State), Negus Webster-Chan (Missouri) Nick Wiggins (Wichita State).