This year, Canadian players continue to make their presence felt at the U.S. college basketball tournament known as “March Madness,” as record numbers of recruits from Canada stream south to pursue state-side hoop dreams.
While Canadians have never been so present in America’s top level of college basketball, it also means that the Canadian varsity system is struggling to keep the talent.
“We’d like to see the majority of that talent stay home and have the opportunity to develop and grow in Canada,” said Ken Olynyk, director of athletics and recreation at Thompson Rivers University in Kamloops, B.C.
Number of Canadians playing division I NCAA basketball
Source: Canada Basketball
27 Canadians – including Andrew Wiggins, the highly touted star from Vaughn, Ont. – play for teams that qualified for the National Collegiate Athletic Association men's basketball tournament, according to Canada Basketball numbers.
The three-week-long, made-for-TV basketball bonanza gets underway Tuesday and pits 68 of America’s best Division I teams against each other.
Because not every team makes the tournament, those 27 Canadians are just a cross-section of what’s going on in NCAA basketball.
Altogether, there are 105 Canadians on NCAA rosters this year, a record high that furthers a trend of promising Canadian players heading to the States for varsity basketball.
"Schools in the States [began] saying 'hold it now, that’s an area of recruitment that we could become familiar with and get some pretty good players out of,'" said Olynyk.
A decade ago, 63 Canadians took the floor in Division I NCAA basketball competition. That number grew to 80 by 2008-09 and to 95 in 2011-12
More than just numbers
It’s not just a case of more players. Canada is churning out elite-level pro prospects faster than ever before.
The biggest hype is around Andrew Wiggins from Vaughn, Ont., who stars for one of college basketball’s iconic schools, the Kansas Jayhawks. The 19-year-old player is likely to be a first-round NBA draft pick this summer.
Two other Canadians — Mississauga’s Nik Stauskas (Michigan) and Brampton, Ont.’s Tyler Ennis (Syracuse) — joined Wiggins on the short list of 15 nominees for the John R. Wooden Award, which is handed out to the year’s most outstanding player.
“With the success of some of the players in the NCAA and NBA, that leads to [scouts] making sure they don’t leave any rock unturned when it comes to Canada," said Olynyk, a former coach of the Canadian junior men's basketball team.
It was that intense recruiting process that led U.S. scouts to Olynyk’s son, Kelly.
Kelly Olynyk played his high school basketball in Kamloops, B.C., and was recruited by several U.S. and Canadian schools.
“It’d be awesome to have seen my son play in Canada. But he was in a situation where he got an opportunity to propel himself to the next level,” said Olynyk.
Kelly wanted to pursue his dream of playing professional basketball, and migrated stateside after perennial basketball power Gonzaga University offered him a scholarship.
“It’s enticing for anyone who’s competitive about the game of basketball,” said Kelly Olynyk, now a forward with the Boston Celtics.
Those sought-after scholarships are part of what makes the NCAA so appealing to Canadian prospects.
In Canada, universities can only cover the costs of tuition and fees for new recruits. But a scholarship from a NCAA school includes money for tuition, as well as housing, food and textbooks.
The attraction also lies in the chance to perform on one of America’s most illustrious sporting stages. Games are played in raucous, packed gymnasiums and broadcast on national television. The tournament’s semi-final and final round — the Final Four — is one of the most-watched sporting events of the year.
In 2013, Kelly Olynyk left school with a year of eligibility still to go after leading his team in scoring and being named a first team All-American.
Last summer, he became the fifth Canadian NCAA alum in the past three years to be selected in the first round of the NBA draft.
Now nearing the end of his rookie NBA season, Olynyk says the success of Canadians at the pro level is dispelling any reservations Americans schools once had about recruiting north of the border.
“Before, you had to be almost twice as good as the average American, and now it’s more even,” he said.
U.S. schools have more funding
When it comes to varsity basketball, Canadian universities are at a sizable disadvantage in terms of scholarships, competition level, media exposure and resources when compared with their American counterparts.
“It takes a level of investment that we know U.S. schools can afford, because of the commercial nature of their program,” said Canada Basketball CEO Wayne Parrish.
What more modestly budgeted Canadians schools can offer recruits is five years of varsity sports eligibility instead of four, access to coaching year round (the NCAA restricts coaching hours) and the chance to assume a starring role on a team.
But history shows that players looking to make the NBA have found the lure of the NCAA too good to pass up.
Will Njoku from Saint Mary’s University in Halifax was the last player from a Canadian university to be drafted by an NBA team.
He was selected 41st overall in the 1994 draft by the Indiana Pacers, but never played a game for the team. Instead, Njoku had a decade-long career competing in various European leagues, a path followed by many former Canadian varsity players.
While college basketball is an entrenched part of American sporting culture, varsity sports in Canada are much more modest in both support and funding.
Parrish says while the appetite to overhaul the Canadian system exists among athletic departments, the financial realities of varsity sports in Canada mean change will likely be slow in coming.
“It would be lovely to think that one day that would be possible,” he said.
“[But] there are lots of funding issues at universities. And, one can understand and accept that their priorities are in a different direction.”