March Madness Takeaways: Canada’s Ryan Nembhard leads Creighton into Sweet 16

Ryan Nembhard #2 of the Creighton Bluejays drives the lane during the first half against the Baylor Bears in the second round of the NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament at Ball Arena on March 19, 2023 in Denver, Colorado. (Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images)

Canadian Ryan Nembhard missed a chance to play in March Madness in his freshman year with the Creighton Bluejays — yes, that’s how the Nebraska university spells it — last year when he suffered a broken wrist in February.

The native of Aurora, Ont. still was named the Big East freshman of the year, but you know it had to sting to sit out as the Bluejays advanced to the second round.

Well, Creighton is going at least one step further this year with a healthy Nembhard.

The younger brother of Indiana Pacers rookie and former Gonzaga star Andrew Nembhard, Ryan Nembhard had a career-high 30 points as No. 6 seed Creighton upset No. 3 Baylor 85-76 on Sunday.

Baylor, by the way, beat Andrew Nembhard’s Gonzaga team in the 2021 national final, ruining the Zags’ perfect season after the older brother had transferred from Florida.

On Sunday, Ryan Nembhard made all 10 of his free throws and was 8-of-13 from the field, including 4-of-6 from three-point territory.

“It’s a feeling you can’t describe,” the six-foot point guard said. “I was obviously out last year and it was tough for me to watch, but I’m super excited to get back out with my guys this year. Our goal this year was to get back to a game like this, and we’re super happy we could pull out the win.”

The 30-point breakout was well above Nembhard’s season average of 11.9.

Creighton made all 22 of its free throws — and if that continues, look out.

As for Nembhard, Creighton coach Greg McDermott originally thought it was a long shot he’d end up in Omaha.

“Yeah, I remember the first time I saw him play in Vegas in a side gym sitting there with (assistant) coach (Alan) Huss. We were watching somebody else, and I said who’s that little guy from Canada?

“And he said well, his brother is at Florida. He’s probably going to go to Florida. And we kind of dismissed it and then Andrew ended up leaving Florida.

“But I fell in love with him the first time I watched him play. His expression never changes. He has the type of demeanour that you want the rest of the team to look to because he’s never going to be rattled. He’s never going to get too high when things are going well, and he’s never going to get too low if he’s struggling.”

The Bluejays have a favourable draw with Ivy League surprise Princeton, the No. 15, seed, next up in Louisville on Friday.

Kansas State star inspires

Not only is Keyontae Johnson playing basketball again, he’s about to do so on one of the biggest stages in the sport.

A Sweet 16 appearance at Madison Square Garden following Sunday’s 75-69 win over Kentucky is simply storybook stuff for the Kansas State swingman when you consider where he was just over two years ago.

In December 2020, in a moment remembered by all sports fans during the COVID-19 pandemic, Johnson collapsed on the court after an alley-oop attempt while playing for the Florida Gators.

Athletic trainers were quick to give chest compressions and use a defibrillator, saving Johnson’s life. He was then in a coma for three days.

ESPN reported Johnson was diagnosed with “athlete’s heart” — an increase in cardiac mass due to systematic training.

After a long rehab, Florida doctors didn’t clear him to play again. But two other doctors green-lighted Johnson, who transferred to Kansas State prior to this season and is thriving (averaging 17.7 points and 7.1 rebounds) on a team four wins away from a national title after three consecutive losing seasons.

Many picked the Wildcats to finish last in the Big 12 this season.

On Sunday, Johnson’s step-back three with 1:15 left was a dagger, giving third-seeded Kansas State a five-point lead.

He finished with 13 points.

“I mean, it’s really a blessing just being out here,” Johnson said. “I got emotional with my dad, everything that I’ve been through. I finally just got past that and made it to the Sweet 16.”

So here he is, now with pro dreams, after he opted to keep playing despite having a $5-million insurance policy if he never played college or pro basketball again.

Pretty easy kid to root for.

Mr. March

When it comes to the NCAA tournament, count on Tom Izzo making an impact.

The Michigan State coach, making an NCAA men’s record 25th consecutive appearance in the tournament, is off to the Sweet 16 after his seventh-seeded Spartans upset No. 2 Marquette 69-60.

Izzo was fired up in the second half, showing all kinds of enthusiasm after his team gobbled up one offensive rebound. It was his record 16th win with a lower-seeded team, breaking a tie with recently retired Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim.

Canadian corner

The Prosper siblings from Rosemere, Que. went 1-1 on Sunday in games that overlapped for the second time this tournament.

Cassandre Prosper had seven points as Notre Dame beat visiting Mississippi State 53-48 in South Bend, Ind, while Olivier-Maxence Prosper had a team-leading 16 points for Marquette in its loss to Michigan State in Columbus, Ohio.

Monday’s Schedule

Women’s (round of 32)

No. 6 North Carolina vs. No. 3 Ohio State, 4 p.m. ET / 1 p.m. PT

No. 12 Toledo vs. No. 4 Tennessee, 6 p.m. ET / 3 p.m. PT

No. 12 Florida Gulf Coast vs. No. 4 Villanova, 7 p.m. ET / 4 p.m. PT

No. 5 Louisville vs. No. 4 Texas, 7 p.m. ET / 4 p.m. PT

No. 9 Miami vs. No. 1 Indiana, 8 p.m. ET / 5 p.m. PT

No. 6 Colorado vs. No. 3 Duke, 9 p.m. ET / 6 p.m. PT

No. 7 Baylor vs. No. 2 UConn, 9 p.m. ET / 6 p.m. PT

No. 5 Oklahoma vs. No. 4 UCLA, 10 p.m. ET / 7 p.m. PT

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