NCAA basketball coaches want Canadian talent

Canadian Basketball star R.J. Barrett dunks the ball during practice. (Nathan Denette/CP)

VANCOUVER — Coaches for some of the NCAA’s best basketball teams had the chance to perform a couple of key duties this week.

Not only did they guide their women’s and men’s teams in out-of-conference games at the inaugural Vancouver Showcase, they also got to spend time in a country that is becoming a recruiting hot spot.

"They’ve got some unbelievable talent, some great coaches," said University of Washington men’s coach Mike Hopkins.

Just look at R.J. Barrett, he said.

The 18-year-old Mississauga, Ont., native is lighting up the court as a freshman forward at Duke University, averaging 22.8 points in his first six games. He’s expected to be a high pick in the 2019 NBA draft.

"It’s one of the top countries in terms of basketball," said Hopkins, who knows a thing or two about Canadian products from his time as an assistant at Syracuse, the college home of former Canuck NBAers like Andy Rautins, Kris Joseph and Tyler Ennis.

"Canada basketball is up-and-coming. They’re competing against the U.S. for the best in the world."

One Canadian player sticks out in the mind of Muffet McGraw, the coach of the top-ranked Notre Dame women’s team since 1987.

Natalie Achonwa is from Guelph, Ont., and played for McGraw from 2010 to 2014, leading the Fighting Irish to four consecutive Final Four appearances.

"She’s one of my all-time favourites," the coach said. "She left her name in the record books and I think she’s going to be a great coach one day, too."

Since leaving Notre Dame, Achonwa has played three seasons with the WNBA’s Indiana Fever and helped the national team capture gold at the 2015 Pan Am Games in Toronto.

"She is somebody who exemplifies what Canada has to offer," McGraw said in this week. "There’s been a lot of great players out of here. And we would love to keep recruiting them. There’s just a lot of talent up here."

Several schools vied to sign one of the country’s newest emerging stars. Laeticia Amihere of Milton, Ont., drew awe from around the Internet after a clip of her dunking in a game went viral in 2017.

The 17-year-old announced earlier this month that she has committed to the University of South Carolina, saying in a video that she picked the school because of their "winning culture" and the opportunity to work with Hall of Fame coach Dawn Staley.

Mael Gilles, who’s from Montreal and plays forward at Rutgers University, said playing in the NCAA offers a higher level of competition than what’s available at many Canadian schools.

"It’s a completely different game, basketball in Canada and basketball in the United States. It’s faster, there’s more skill," she said.

"I feel like in Canada, the sports, it’s more about football and hockey."

Josip Vrankic, a sophomore forward at Santa Clara University (Steve Nash’s alma mater), got a rare chance to play on Canadian soil in Vancouver this week. The crowd cheered when the starting lineup was announced, revealing that he’s from Toronto.

"For me, it felt really cool knowing that I have support from people back in Canada and people actually care," Vrankic said, adding that he held his head high and sang along when O Canada was played before the game.

Tournaments like the Vancouver Showcase, Vrankic said, could help put the spotlight on Canadian basketball.

"I think the more exposure we get, the more people starting looking up to the north and seeing that we have people that can play basketball there and compete at a high level," he said. "I think it should take us to the next level, which I think we deserve for all the talent and stuff we produce."

Part of the problem is that it’s harder to find NCAA games — especially women’s games — on TV in Canada, said Louise Forsyth, a sophomore guard at Gonzaga University.

Playing more tournaments north of the border could create a bigger appetite for the sport and entice a new generation to play, said the Langley, B.C., native.

"I think it definitely grows the game of basketball in Canada," she said. "I think it’s a really good chance for young girls and just people in general to see women’s basketball at the highest level."

Plus, playing in front of a hometown crowd is a lot of fun, the 19-year-old said. Her friends, family and former coaches all turned out Wednesday afternoon to watch Gonzaga battle reigning NCAA champion Notre Dame. Cheers erupted when Forsyth hit the floor and again when she sunk a three-pointer.

Gonzaga lost 81-65, but the experience was still special for Forsyth.

"I could hear them in the stands. It was really nice," she said. "I’m just really excited for the opportunity."

The Vancouver Showcase women’s final is Saturday night.

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