Record number of Canadians in March Madness is part of an ongoing basketball success story
Geoff Nixon | CBC News | Posted: Friday, March 17th, 2023 7:25 PM | Last Updated: March 17th
'Canadians are here to stay in terms of basketball,' sports agent says
Canada has seen double-digit numbers of its homegrown basketball players taking part in March Madness in recent years, a testament to the deep pool of talent on this side of the border.
Fifty-three such athletes are part of this year's famed NCAA Division I Men's and Women's Basketball Championships, which Canada Basketball says is a record — though the tournaments have had at least 50 Canadian participants for three consecutive years, including this one.
University of Connecticut forward Aaliyah Edwards, from Kingston, Ont., is one such player, and she attributes her success to her "big sisters" on the Canadian senior women's national team who mentored her.
"Big shout-out to them; just a big shout-out to the Canadian basketball family," she told CBC News, adding she hopes she can make a similar impact on the next generation of players.
"All those little girls who aspire to be in my position ... [who] want to pick up a basketball and are passionate about it, just know you can be successful if you put your mind to it and keep your family close."
WATCH | Edwards on her Canadian support and inspiration:
'Canadians are here to stay'
Matt Slan, the founder and CEO of Slan Sports Management, said that number is unlikely to shift much with Canada producing so many great players.
"Canadians are here to stay in terms of basketball," said Slan, who remembers the days when it was a hard sell to get players from this side of the border noticed.
To his point, there were 50 Canadian players involved in March Madness in 2022.
A year earlier, 25 men and 27 women were part of the tournaments, according to Canada Basketball-reported numbers.
There were no March Madness games at all in 2020, as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.
'Pretty consistent' appearances
Michael Meeks, the assistant general manager of Canada Basketball's men's basketball operations, says the number of March Madness players with Canadian roots has been "pretty consistent" in recent years.
But it's not a surprise, given the success of Canadian players that has been followed by the players coming up behind them.
"We've been producing athletes at the highest level for the last 10 years," Meeks said, pointing to the frequent selection of Canadians as first-round NBA draft picks, as just one example of this ongoing and broader wave of success.
For Meeks, there are a number of factors that are contributing to this trend — including support for up-and-coming players, access to better competition as those players develop, and a greater U.S. awareness of the Canadian talent pool.
Both Meeks and Slan highlight the wider community of people helping to build the game in Canada and support the next generation of players.
"There's a lot of Canadians doing a lot of good things on the basketball court and off the basketball court to support the movement as a whole," said Slan.
The massive landscape of March Madness involves well over 100 U.S. college teams. Yet the respective men's and women's championship victors ultimately won't be decided until early April, despite the tournament's name.
Slan points out that for players at the end of their college career, the tournament comes ahead of whatever they will do next.
Some will land in the NBA or WNBA, but others will find opportunities in other parts of the globe.
"From Taiwan to Lebanon to Qatar, they all have pro basketball leagues," said Slan, noting this may also be the next step for some Canadian players.
Past Canadian champs
Few Canadians have been part of NCAA championship-winning teams.
Most recently, Alyssa Jerome was part of the Stanford team that won the women's NCAA title in 2021. A few years earlier, Kia Nurse, playing for UConn, won back-to-back titles in 2015 and 2016. In 2000, Kelly Schumacher, a U.S.-born player who grew up in Quebec, won a title, also with UConn.
Canada Basketball identifies Mike Brkovich as the first Canadian member of a men's team to win an NCAA title, with Michigan State in 1979. Others include Jamaal Magloire, while playing for the University of Kentucky in 1998; David Thomas, also with Michigan State, in 2000; Denham Brown with UConn in 2004; and Kyle Wiltjer in 2012, as part of a victorious Kentucky squad.