While there are fewer Canadians in action during the NCAA’s annual knockout tournament this year than last, when 22 Canucks strutted their stuff on college basketball’s biggest stage there’s no shortage of standout talent.
From stars on perennial contenders to valuable role-players on potential bracket-busters, here’s a look at seven Canadians to keep an eye out for during March Madness this year:
SHAI GILGEOUS-ALEXANDER, PG, Kentucky (Fr.)
Gilgeous-Alexander is the highest-rated Canadian NBA draft prospect and you don’t have to look much further than his performance in Sunday’s SEC championship win to understand why.
The freshman point guard scored a team-high 29 points for Kentucky while logging a game-high 37 minutes in the Wildcats’ 77-72 victory over Tennessee. More impressive was his 10-of-16 shooting, including a tidy 2-for-3 from beyond the arc.
He was Second Team All-SEC this season, made the conference’s all-freshman team and was named Most Outstanding Player of the SEC tournament, playing his best ball of the season at just the right time.
At six-foot-five, Gilgeous-Alexander is an effective ball-handler and can get into the lane thanks to an expanding arsenal of moves. He’s also an active defender who led his team in steals with 1.6 per game. With a consistent jumper he’s an ideal pro point guard and one NBA teams in need of a long-term answer at the position won’t hesitate on drafting in the lottery.
Although the Hamilton, Ont., native showed off his scoring prowess when it mattered most, he’s excelled as a distributor for the Wildcats this season, averaging five assists per game. And while he’s hardly a volume shooter from deep, he’s looked far more comfortable shooting the three as of late, hitting 50 per cent of his three-point attempts over his last seven games.
Kentucky is in a tough bracket, sharing the South region with top-overall seed Virginia and a dangerous Arizona club, but the Wildcats are 7-1 in their last eight heading into the tournament and Gilgeous-Alexander has scored in double figures in all but one of those contests.
KASSIUS ROBERTSON, G, Missouri (Sr.)
After four seasons at Canisius — including a red-shirted freshman year — Robertson transferred to the bigger stage of the SEC, and has flourished. The Toronto product averaged a career-best 16.2 points per game to lead the Tigers this season, knocking down just over three triples per game at a 42.5 per cent rate.
Robertson is a streaky but potentially lethal scorer who dropped at least 20 points eleven times this season. And while his ability to put the ball in the basket stands out, he has an all-around game and can find his teammates off the dribble:
Robertson was named First Team All-SEC this season and will be key to Missouri’s tournament hopes as the team looks to incorporate star freshman Michael Porter Jr. back into the lineup after missing nearly the entire season due to a serious back injury.
Missouri enters the tournament as an 8-seed and will tip-off against No. 9 Florida State on Friday night.
OSHAE BRISSETT, F, SYRACUSE (Fr.)*
This one comes with an asterisk because Syracuse will need to win their play-in game versus Arizona State on Wednesday night in order to officially book its ticket to the big dance.
If the Orangemen are going to advance they’ll need a big night from Brissett, who has stepped up in big moments before this season. The six-foot-eight forward turned heads earlier this season in a win over Georgetown in which the 19 year-old from Toronto was flat-out unstoppable down the stretch, scoring 23 of his 24 points in the second half.
Brissett is a double-double threat waiting to happen and has scored in double figures in nine of his last ten games. His 8.8 rebounds per game led the Orange and was good for 7th among NCAA Division I freshmen this season. Unsurprisingly, Brissett was named to the ACC’s All-Freshman team.
NICKIEL ALEXANDER-WALKER, G, Virgina Tech (Fr.)
A cousin of Kentucky’s Gilgeous-Alexander, the Virginia Tech freshman point guard entered the 2017-18 campaign as the 13th-ranked prospect out of high school and while he still has to find consistency, he has had his share of big moments already this season.
"Ice in his veins."
— FOX Sports South (@FOXSportsSouth) February 1, 2018
On a Virginia Tech team that relies on production from all over the court — five players finished the season averaging double figures in scoring — Alexander-Walker is a bona fide x-factor who can break a game open for the Hokies if he gets in rhythm while remaining an active defender in the backcourt.
Virginia Tech enters the tournament as an 8-seed in the East region and could face a potential second-round matchup with top seed Villanova should it advance past Alabama on Thursday.
KIMBAL MACKENZIE, G, Bucknell (Jr.)
Oakville, Ont., native Mackenzie has been solid as a starter for the two-time defending Patriot League champions, averaging more than 30 minutes and 12 points per game over his last three contests.
He may not be the game-changing type of force that some of those already listed are, but Mackenzie is an important player for Bucknell who has had bright moments this season.
KIMBAL MACKENZIE! He sinks the and draws the foul!
— Bucknell MBasketball (@Bucknell_MBB) February 1, 2018
Bucknell is a 14-seed in the tournament and drew a tough first-round matchup with Michigan State.
KYLE ALEXANDER, C, Tennessee (Jr.)
Alexander was given a bigger role with Tennessee this season and has thrived. The six-foot-11 big man is a dangerous rim defender, swatting away a team-high 1.7 blocks per game this season, recording nine games with three blocks or more. He averaged two blocks over his past three games and has made strides in his free-throw shooting, missing just two freebies over the last month.
Despite being sixth in minutes played for his team, the Milton, Ont., native could be a deciding factor for the third-seeded Volunteers if he establishes his presence down low — and he should have the opportunity to do so against an undersized Wright State in the first round.
Alexander’s older sister, Kayla, a former WNBA first-round pick, plays for the Canadian national team and plays centre for the Indiana Fever.
JACKSON ROWE, F, Cal-State Fullerton (So.)
If the 15-seed Titans are going to pull off the upset against No. 2 Purdue on Friday they’ll need a big afternoon from their Toronto-born starting forward.
Rowe, who leads his team in blocks (1.0) and rebounds (6.8) this season, has been playing some of his best and most consistent basketball of late, averaging nearly 14 points and over seven boards over the past month. While he’s struggled to stretch the floor in that span, Rowe was integral to Cal-State Fullerton winning the Big West Conference title and has an opportunity to make a bigger name for himself this week.
2018 NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament tips off Thursday.