Syracuse’s Brissett, UConn’s Nurse among Canadians tearing up NCAA

Connecticut's Kia Nurse (11) drives past Michigan State's Mardrekia Cook (2) in the first half of an NCAA college basketball game (Timothy J. Gonzalez/AP)

For obvious reasons, the 2018-19 college basketball season will be a must-watch for Canadian hoop fans. That was a given as soon as Mississauga, Ont., phenom R.J. Barrett, the top-ranked player in his high school class and projected first-overall NBA draft pick, reclassified earlier this year and announced he would attend Duke next season.

Throw in fellow junior national team member and high school senior Simmi Shittu — a projected first-rounder himself — who recently announced he would be playing for Vanderbilt beginning in 2018, and the top-flight Canadian talent on display in the NCAA is worth getting excited for.

Problem is, by looking ahead to next season, you’d be missing out on the loads of Canadian men’s and women’s standouts making noise at the NCAA level right now. It’s an impressive list that includes national team stars, future projected draft picks, and an intriguing blend of talent.

With that in mind, here are some players to keep your eye on as the college basketball season progresses:

OSHAE BRISSETT, Fr., Syracuse

Brissett’s college debut put fans on notice with a double-double (11 points, 10 boards) and he’s continued to attack the glass in the ten games since. At 9.7 rebounds per game, Brissett ranks fifth among NCAA freshman, just slightly behind projected top-five 2018 draft picks Marvin Bagley III of Duke and Texas’ Mo Bamba.

The six-foot-eight forward had a breakout performance over the weekend in a dramatic 86-79 overtime win on the road over Georgetown. Against a Hoyas team that featured his former high school teammate and fellow Canadian, freshman Javohn Blair (the 2016 Jordan Brand Classic MVP), Brissett was nearly unstoppable down the stretch. Despite scoring just one point by halftime, he finished the game with 25 points and 14 points, showing off his ability to both score at the rim and do damage from beyond the arc.

He earned ACC Rookie of the Week honours on Monday, and became just the second Orange freshman to post those kind of stats in a single game. The other? Former National Player of the Year Carmelo Anthony.

Averaging 15 points in 36 minutes per game (tops among Canadians in the NCAA) he stands to continue to be a major piece for his team this season. Syracuse is off to a 9-1 start behind Brissett’s strong play.

KIA NURSE, Sr., Connecticut

No surprises here considering Nurse’s resume, which already includes two NCAA championships, near record-setting March Madness shooting performances and gold medals as part of the Canadian women’s national team.

In her final season at UConn, currently ranked No. 1 in the country at a perfect 8-0, Nurse is second on the team in points (15.4) and minutes (32.9) per game, while shooting an impressive 57 per cent from the floor and a scorching 55 per cent from deep. At 22-for-40 this season, she ranks third in the NCAA in three-point shooting.

Nurse will be playing in Toronto on Friday, when the Huskies face Duquesne at Ryerson’s Mattamy Athletic Centre.

LINDELL WIGGINTON, Fr., Iowa State

A member of Canada’s gold-medal winning team at the Under-19 World Cup this past summer, Wigginton, a six-foot-two guard has been lighting it up, topping 20 points in four of his first ten games this season.

An alumni of Oak Hill, the U.S. prep powerhouse that produced Kevin Durant, Carmelo Anthony, Rajon Rondo and a host of other NBA players, Wigginton has been a go-to player early into his first collegiate season. He ranks in the top 15 in freshman scoring and at 16.6 points per game he currently leads the 8-2 Cyclones in that category. He’s also shooting the ball well, connecting on 48 per cent of his five three-point attempts per game.

The Dartmouth, N.S., native is on track to be the first Nova Scotian in the NBA, currently projected as a first-rounder in the 2019 draft.

Wigginton is doing a lot more than helping Iowa State make a run toward the NCAA Tournament— he’s blazing a new course for the future of East Coast basketball in this country.

VICTORIA RAMPADO, Sr., Niagara

After red-shirting her junior year in 2015-16 after suffering a season-ending injury, Rampado, a six-foot-two forward, returned last season and started all 30 games for Niagara while leading the MAAC conference in scoring and finishing fourth in rebounding.

This season the Niagara Falls, Ont., native has been even better, already earning a conference player of the week award this season after tying a career high with 27 points in Niagara’s win over Louisiana Tech. With a season average of 19.5 points per game, Rampado has established herself as one of the top scorers in the NCAA.

NICKIEL ALEXANDER-WALKER, Fr., Virginia Tech

The Toronto, Ont., native has a bright future ahead of him. He made a loud impact from the moment he stepped onto an NCAA court, scoring 53 points over his first two games, and is currently averaging 13.6 points, 4.2 rebounds, and two assists per game while helping the Hokies to a 9-2 record.

A five-star recruit and the 13th-ranked player coming out of high school, Alexander-Walker turns heads with his abilities as both a playmaker and sharpshooter in the backcourt. He’s shooting 53 per cent from the floor and 47 per cent from deep.

While the folks at NBAdraft.net have the six-foot-five guard currently projected as a top-ten pick in the 2019 draft, Sports Illustrated recently called him a sleeper and “one of the best guards of the 2018 draft.”

JUSTIN JACKSON, So., Maryland

At the close of the 2016-17 season, Jackson was believed to be a sure-fire first rounder thanks to an NBA-ready body and versatile game that wasn’t hard to envision translating well to the next level. The six-foot-seven combo forward elected to return to school, a decision that was lauded as it seemed likely that he would play his way to a potential lottery spot in the 2018 draft.

In the pre-season, Jackson was named to the Naismith Award watch list as a potential player-of-the-year candidate.

Yet so far this season the Toronto native has seen a slight dip in his scoring numbers, despite having more plays run for him, averaging 9.8 points per game. He has been rebounding the ball better, averaging 8.1 per game, and is averaging nearly one block and one steal per game as well for the 10-3 Terrapins. One major concern has been his three-point shooting, a category he led his team in last season at 43.8 per cent, but has dropped to a worrisome 25 per cent this year.

His 20-point outing — in 41 minutes of action — during Maryland’s overtime win versus Illinois earlier this month appeared to be a sign of improvement on the horizon. Jackson was beginning to live up to the high expectations surrounding him heading into his sophomore campaign, but he has missed the last two games dealing with shoulder issues.

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