How New Mexico State's basketball Aggies became Canada's team
Toronto-born coach Paul Weir leads 4 Canadian players into March Madness tournament
When the New Mexico State Aggies hit the hardwood at this year's NCAA March Madness tournament, the southern U.S. school will have plenty of support north of the border.
Located in Las Cruces, N.M., the small public institution nestled near the Texas state line and the Mexican border is a long way from Canada.
But it's had 11 Canadian players on its basketball roster over the past nine seasons — more than any other NCAA Division 1 school.
It will also feature the most Canadian players on any team at this year's tournament, whose main event starts Thursday.
First-year head coach and Toronto native Paul Weir is the man behind the migration.
"I'm a rookie head coach that has found a way onto a really fun team that's on a great run this year," Weir told reporters soon after NMSU clinched its spot on college basketball's biggest stage.
The former York University player is just the third Canadian to coach a Division 1 school, and the first to make the NCAA tournament since 1959.
He's in his 10th year with the Aggies after joining the school for the 2007-08 season, and being promoted from associate to head coach last April.
"I haven't had a whole lot of time to sit back and think about it."
While he's happy to pluck talent from his old backyard, Weir is more interested in a player's potential than his passport.
"The secret is out," he said of Canada's basketball talent. "It's not just that we've been signing Canadian kids. It's that they've been coming in and having really good careers here."
Having played and coached in Canada gives him an advantage with recruits. "I was able to develop a lot of relationships that have allowed me to get in the door with some of these players."
'It'll feel like home'
Montreal's Hernst Laroche, the first of Weir's Canadian recruits, said, "When I went there it was like a new world for me."
Laroche arrived at NMSU in 2008. He played three seasons with the Aggies before going on to a professional career in Europe, and now he plays in France.
"He told me I'd get better. I'd get my diploma and that we'd go to the tournament," Laroche said, remembering Weir's recruiting pitch. All those predictions came true.
By the 2011-12 season, the team's Canadian contingent had grown to five.
"I told them. 'Once you come here, it'll feel like home,'" said Laroche.
Current player Matt Taylor arrived from Brampton, Ont., in the fall of 2013 knowing little of the school other than its Canadian hoops history.
"I actually had no idea where New Mexico was. I thought it was in Mexico, to be honest," he said.
He's one of four Canadian players on this year's team, a number the school has maintained or bettered in each of the past seven seasons.
"They've almost adopted us," he said of NMSU's fans. "We see Canadian flags through the crowd in games. I've had people call me Air Canada."
College basketball's biggest stage
And the Aggies' Canadian contingent has given those fans plenty to cheer about. The team has won six conference tournaments in the past eight seasons.
Playing at NMSU also thrusts Canadians into the brightest spotlight in college basketball: the NCAA tournament, better known as March Madness.
Apart from being a stimulus for office pools across the country, the tournament is among the marquee events of the American sports calendar, drawing millions of viewers over three weeks.
"To see how many people were there and seeing legends like Chris Webber and Reggie Miller commentating — it's really breathtaking. It's an experience that you can't even explain unless you've been there," Taylor said of his first tournament experience in 2015.
And the competition has helped launch the pro careers of former NMSU players. Six Canadian NMSU alumni have gone on to pro careers after leaving the school, a career path Taylor intends to follow after the season ends.
"You put in a lot of work to get to that level … it's important to take advantage of that opportunity."
His loss will reduce NMSU's Canadian contingent next season.
But the small school`s niche as Canada South has helped it capture some attention and victories on the court.