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A casual Canadian fan's guide to March Madness

CBC Sports' daily newsletter covers some key stuff to know for the NCAA men's basketball tournament, including how a Canadian is playing a key role for the undefeated favourite.

Some key things to know before the men's tournament tips off Friday

Canadian guard Andrew Nembhard is an important part of Gonzaga's undefeated team. (William Mancebo/Getty Images)

This is an excerpt from The Buzzer, which is CBC Sports' daily email newsletter. Stay up to speed on what's happening in sports by subscribing here.

March Madness starts today

Sort of. The four play-in games for the NCAA men's basketball tournament all happen today, starting at 5:10 p.m. ET. The main 64-team bracket opens Friday at 12:15 p.m. ET in the Indianapolis area, where the entire event will be played in a bubble-like environment. Last year's tournament was cancelled due to the pandemic.

The NCAA women's tournament begins Sunday in Texas. We'll have more on that tomorrow. For now, here are some basics that a casual Canadian fan should know for the men's tourney:

Gonzaga is the big favourite.

It's not quite Duke, Kentucky or North Carolina, but the small school in Spokane, Wash., has reached near-blue-blood status with its sustained run of success over the last two decades. Since they came out of nowhere to reach the Elite Eight as a 10 seed in 1999, the Bulldogs have qualified for the tournament every year, reached the Sweet Sixteen 10 times, the Elite Eight four times and the Final Four once — in 2017, when they entered the tournament with a 32-1 record and lost to North Carolina in the national championship game.

This year's Zags are 26-0. That's partly a product of playing in the relatively soft West Coast Conference, but Gonzaga has the top-ranked offence in the country and the No. 9 defence, according to the respected kenpom ratings system. It also has a pair of strong NBA prospects in freshman guard Jalen Suggs, who's expected to go in the top five in this year's draft, and senior forward Corey Kispert, who led the team in scoring and could also be a high first-round pick.

Gonzaga has a key Canadian too. Junior guard Andrew Nembhard, who transferred from Florida before this season, typically comes off the bench but plays a starter's minutes and is often out there in crunch time. He's averaging 9.2 points and 4.2 assists — just a touch behind Suggs for the team lead in the latter category.

Betting odds imply Gonzaga has about a 1 in 3 chance of winning the tournament — more than twice as good as any other team's. If they do it, the Zags will become the first undefeated men's college basketball champion since Bobby Knight's Indiana Hoosiers in 1976.

25 Canadian players are involved in the tournament.

Nembhard has the best chance to cut down the nets, but several other Canadians are on teams that could go deep in the tournament. Freshman guard Josh Primo averages 8.1 points for Alabama, which is the 2 seed in the East region, though he's dealing with a knee injury and might not be able to play for the first couple of rounds. Sophomore forward Quincy Guerrier averages 14.4 points and 8.8 rebounds for Syracuse, which is an 11 seed but often performs well in the tournament. Senior guard Jahvon Blair (15.8 points) is the leading scorer for another big-name program, Georgetown, which is making its first tournament appearance since 2015 and is coached by college/NBA great Patrick Ewing.

The two highest-scoring Canadians in the tournament play for the same team. Forward Eugene Omoruyi and guard Chris Duarte are both averaging 16.7 points as seniors for Oregon, which is the 7 seed in Gonzaga's region, the West.

And keep an eye out for 4-seeded Purdue's centre, Zach Edey. It won't be hard: he's 7-foot-4 and 285 pounds.

Learn more about the top Canadians to watch in this story by CBC Sports' Myles Dichter and in the newest episode of North Courts (below), which includes an interview with Nembhard.

Tired: Blue bloods. Wired: New blood.

For the first time since 1976, both Duke and Kentucky missed the tournament. North Carolina is a humble 9 seed. Michigan State and UCLA face each other in a play-in game tonight, so one of those traditional powers won't make it.

The four No. 1 seeds (Gonzaga, Illinois, Baylor and Michigan) own a grand total of one title in the history of their schools — Michigan's way back in 1989. This could signal the old guard is fading, or it might just be a side effect of a weird, pandemic-warped season.

Sister Jean's team is in the mix again.

The elderly chaplain for Loyola-Chicago became a minor celebrity three years ago when she cheered her underdog squad to a Final Four berth as an 11 seed. The Ramblers missed the tournament in 2019 but they're back this year as the 8 seed in the Midwest region.

Sister Jean, who's now 101 years old, plans to attend Friday's first-round game. And her team caught a break yesterday when its opponent, Georgia Tech, lost its best player due to a coronavirus-related issue. Loyola-Chicago is now the heavy favourite, setting up a potential second-round matchup (and another Cinderella opportunity) vs. 1-seeded Illinois.

North Courts | Canadians to watch in March Madness

Sports

3 months ago
17:17
It's March Madness time and with a record number of Canadians in the NCAA tournament, we're dedicating this episode to the stars from north of the border, including Jevohn catching up with Gonzaga's own sixth man of the year Andrew Nembhard. 17:17

Quickly...

One of Canada's best gold-medal hopes might not even make the Olympics. For a long time in this newsletter, we've been touting Laurence Vincent Lapointe as a double-gold threat in Tokyo. She was the most dominant women's canoe athlete in the world for the better part of the past decade, winning seven world titles in the singles 200-metre event and four in the doubles 500 with various partners. Those happen to be the two Olympic women's races. But her career got derailed in August 2019 when she tested positive for a banned muscle-building drug and was provisionally suspended, causing her to miss that year's world championships. Vincent Lapointe insisted she did not knowingly take the substance, and her ban was later overturned, clearing the way for her to compete in the Olympics. But at last week's Canadian trials, she was beaten in the singles event by her doubles partner, Katie Vincent, who claimed the country's only Olympic spot. Due in part to Vincent Lapointe's missing the 2019 world championships, Canada currently doesn't have a spot in the Olympic doubles race, though the Canadian team is petitioning for one because of the "extenuating circumstances." If that works out, it would also allow Canada a second entry in the singles race, giving Vincent Lapointe and Vincent a chance to compete in both events in Tokyo. Read more about Vincent Lapointe's bumpy last two years in this piece by The Canadian Press' Gregory Strong.

The Canadian mixed doubles curling championship is underway. This is the third of seven tournaments in the Calgary bubble, and the winning skips from both the Scotties (Kerri Einarson) and the Brier (Brendan Bottcher) are both playing. Einarson is half of a powerhouse duo with three-time Brier champ Brad Gushue, while Bottcher is paired with Bobbie Sauder, his fiancée. Reigning Olympic champions Kaitlyn Lawes and John Morris are not playing together. Morris now usually competes with Rachel Homan, but the Scotties finalist is getting close to her due date so Danielle Schmiemann is replacing her. Lawes is playing with her nephew Connor Lawes. Six-time Scotties champ Jennifer Jones and her husband, Brent Laing, are once again paired together. If you're still a little foggy on the rules for mixed doubles, check out this explainer.

The condensed NHL season is half over. It's crowded at the top, with four teams — defending champ Tampa Bay, Florida, Washington and the Islanders — tied at a league-high 42 points. Three others — Vegas, Carolina, Toronto — are within two points of them. It's lonely at bottom, with the atrocious Buffalo Sabres sitting six points behind the next-worst teams. For the second straight season, Oilers teammates Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl are leading the scoring race — though in reverse order this time, with McDavid currently up by seven points. Meanwhile, Leafs star Auston Matthews is the frontrunner to win his first goals title. And, of course, everyone is still loving the all-Canadian division. For more first-half highlights, watch this video by CBC Sports' Rob Pizzo.

And finally…

The Rangers' Mika Zibanejad had 6 points last night — all in one period. With his hat trick and three assists in a 16:59 span vs. Philadelphia, Zibanejad matched Bryan Trottier's NHL record for most points in a period, set way back in 1978. The Islanders great also had three goals and three assists, but needed 1:34 more of game time to do it. Zibanejad's explosion came in a 9-0 rout of a Flyers team missing its entire regular coaching staff due to COVID-19 protocols. Read more about the Rangers star's big night here.

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