Canadian freshmen looking for March Madness success

It looked like a rebuilding year for the Texas Longhorns following a disappointing 2009-10 season, but thanks to two Canadian freshmen – forward Tristan Thompson and point guard Cory Joseph, the team has exceeded expectations this season.

The 2009-10 season didn't end so well for the Texas Longhorns men's basketball team — a meltdown in the final seconds of last year's first-round matchup against Wake Forest saw the Longhorns seal the earliest of March Madness exits for the first time in six years.

Things seemed to go from bad to worse as the team went from losing games to losing players. Texas saw three of the Longhorns head to the NBA; top scorer and rebounder Damion James was drafted 24th overall by the Atlanta Hawks; freshman point guard Avery Bradley was drafted 19th overall by the Boston Celtics and senior centre Dexter Pittman was drafted in the second round by the Miami Heat.

It looked like a rebuilding year in Austin, but thanks to two Canadian freshmen — forward Tristan Thompson from Brampton, Ont., and Ajax, Ont., point guard Cory Joseph — the 2010-11 edition of the Texas Longhorns have exceeded expectations, and then some, this season.

Behind the play of Thompson and Joseph, Texas (13-3) finished with four more wins than the previous season and sit second overall in the Big 12 Conference standings. They finished 27-7 overall, besting last year's mark of 24-10 that included the tournament loss to Wake Forest.

The two freshmen were also instrumental in ending the Kansas Jayhawks' record 69-game home winning streak on Jan. 22. Thompson and Joseph combined for 23 points, 15 rebounds and six blocks in the 11-point win, the Jayhawks' first loss at Allen Fieldhouse in almost three years.

From elementary to Division I

Thompson and Joseph have had their basketball careers cross paths since the two played against each other in the fifth grade. Both represented Canada at the 2009 FIBA U-19 Basketball Championships in New Zealand; they were AAU teammates and they also played together on the West squad in last season's McDonald's High School All-American game.

More Canucks heading to Austin

Coach Rick Barnes has recruited Canadians in the past, losing out on Toronto's Denham Brown to Jim Calhoun and Connecticut in 2003 and Brampton's Theo Davis to Gonzaga in 2006, but before this season, he had never had any Canadians on his roster.

Now it's safe to say the floodgates have opened.

Barnes and his staff have already signed up two more for next season. Myck Kabongo, a 6-foot-2 point guard, is one of the top-rated high school point guards also recruited by Duke, UNC, Syracuse and Kentucky.

The Toronto native will also play in this month's McDonald's All-American game in Chicago.

Barnes also has a verbal commitment from another Brampton product, 6-foot-8 small forward Kevin Thomas.

With four Canadians on Texas' roster next season, the Texas Longhorns will become Canada's team. Kabongo has already said that Texas will become a dream school for top Canadian basketball players because of the success of Tristan Thompson and Cory Joseph.

The two Ontarians also ended their high school careers together as top recruits in the U.S. at Nevada's Findlay Prep, one of the highest regarded high school programs in the United States.

The two led Findlay to a 32-2 record and back-to-back ESPN Rise NHSI Championships. They also became just the second and third Canadians to ever be named to the prestigious McDonald's High School All-American game.

It's only fitting that they would end up in Austin together, playing for coach Rick Barnes and the Longhorns, picking up the pieces from where last year's team left off.

Step in, step up

Texas's best player and leading scorer is sophomore forward Jordan Hamilton — one of the best players in the country you've probably never heard of. Hamilton averaged over 18 PPG this season, but has welcomed the addition of Thompson.

The 6-foot-8 Brampton native stepped in and helped replace the departed James by taking some of the scoring load off Hamilton and senior Gary Johnson. Thompson is second in team scoring (13.3 PPG) and leads the Horns with 7.8 rebounds per game.

Joseph filled in for the departed Bradley and led the team in assists, 3-point shooting (40.7 per cent) and minutes played. Joseph is also averaging 10.5 points per game, fifth-best on the squad and started all 34 games this season, a rare accomplishment for a first-year point guard.

His coming-out party came during the Longhorns nationally televised game against North Carolina in Greensboro in December. A season-high 21 points was capped off by a tough turnaround, game-winning jumper with 1.4 seconds.

Laurels for the Longhorns

Awards were in order for the two Canadian youngsters after their impressive season.

Thompson was recently named the Big 12's Freshman of the Year as well as the conference's all-defensive team and a Big 12 2nd team All-American.

He was also a finalist for the Wayman Tisdale Award, given to the nation's top freshman.

Joseph, not to be outdone, was named to the conference all-freshman team and was an honourable mention for the all-conference team.

All of those accomplishments will have to be set aside as they ready for their first tournament game.

Texas was awarded with a No. 4 seed in the West Region and have a tough first-round match up against Oakland University. That could see them face Arizona in the second round — a game TNT broadcaster and NBA Hall of Famer Charles Barkley said he would "actually pay to see" during Sunday night's Selection Show.