SAN DIEGO – A Canadian physical education teacher named James Naismith invented the game of basketball in Massachusetts in 1891 and later helped it grow by spreading its seeds at the University of Kansas in the early 20th century.
But the sport never developed massive roots in his native country like it did in the US – at least not until the past 15 years, with a surge of success in the NBA and now a record crop of Canadian players at the highest level of American college basketball.
Check the rosters this month in the men’s NCAA tournament.
There are a record 30 Canadians on them, up from 22 in 2017, according to Canada Basketball.
“It’s just beautiful to see,” Boise State guard Emmanuel Akot said Wednesday before his first-round game in Portland. “When we were growing up in Canada, it wasn’t nearly as good as it is now. So it’s just spectacular to see the growth in Canadian basketball. “
And they didn’t come here to warm the bench:
► Guard Bennedict Mathurin, from Montreal, leads No. 1 seed Arizona Friday here against Wright State. He is the Pac-12 Conference player of the year and is likely to be a top NBA draft pick in June.
► Guard Andrew Nembhard, from Ontario, helped No. 1 Gonzaga win its first-round game Thursday against Georgia State with 11 assists and nine points. Earlier this month, he was named the West Coast Conference tournament’s most outstanding player.
► Center Zach Edey from Toronto is the tallest player in the tournament and the tallest in Big 10 Conference history at 7-foot-4. He leads No. 3 seed Purdue in rebounding and blocked shots as the Boilermakers prepare to play Yale Friday in the first round.
► In the women’s tournament, three of the four No. 1 seeds have Canadian players, including South Carolina with Laeticia Amihere, a star of last year’s tournament who is credited with being the first Canadian woman to dunk a basketball in a game, at age 15.
“It’s been growing every year, progressively for the last decade or so,” said Tariq Sbiet, the CEO of North Pole Hoops, a Canadian business that aims to increase exposure for Canadian basketball prospects.
It adds to the changing face of American college basketball. It’s no longer just a sport annually refilled by the best players from American high schools. NCAA basketball is now a North American sport that is increasingly globalized and professionalized at a time when players have begun to earn money for their names, images and likenesses.
More players are switching teams like free agents after transfer restrictions were reduced last year. There’s also more competition for roster spots with a whole country to the north spilling over the border with top prospects.
Among foreign countries, Canada has by far the most players in American men’s college basketball. According to data cited by NCAA.com, there were 146 Canadians on Division I men’s college rosters this year, which is believed to be at or near record levels, up from 112 in 2016-17.
One example of this is Big Sky Conference men’s champion Montana State, a No. 14 seed set to play Friday against No. 3 seed Texas Tech here at Viejas Arena. Its roster of 17 players lists several transfers from other colleges, as well as two Canadians, two players from England, one from Spain and just two from its home state of Montana.
“It’s huge,” Montana State coach Danny Sprinkle told USA TODAY Sports Thursday when asked how important it is for his program to recruit international players, particularly from Canada. “It’s somewhere where maybe we can get a player that’s maybe above our level, that in order to come to the NCAA tournament, to win our league you have to be able to get Mountain West-level players, low Pac-12 level players. And we feel we’ve done a good job of that in the international market. “
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Similarly, Arizona’s roster of 13 is led by a Canadian star (Mathurin), along with several other players from overseas.
Mathurin’s path to the US from Canada follows that of his sister Jennifer, who played basketball at North Carolina State from 2013 to 2017 and has since returned to Quebec as assistant coach at Bishop’s University.
“I used to watch March Madness a lot because my sister played at NC State,” Mathurin said Thursday. “She’s the reason I started playing basketball. I always tuned (in) when basketball was on because she said it was pretty fun. I always wanted to be better than my sister and follow her path than her. “
In the bigger picture, the Canadian influx in American college basketball is just another offshoot of the larger growth of basketball in Canada, especially with players in the NBA, which had a record 18 players from Canada on opening-night rosters this season.
It is driven by a snowball effect, gaining growth as it rolled through the success of Canadian star Steve Nash, who won the NBA MVP award in 2005 and 2006, followed by an NBA championship for the Toronto Raptors in 2019. Along the way came the rise of social media to increase exposure and a diversifying population that likes more sports than ice hockey.
Montana State senior starter Abdul Mohamed cited Nash when asked about the rise of Canadian college players in the US
“Ice hockey is the sport they play in Canada, but basketball is slowly growing and March Madness is a big deal for a lot of us in Canada,” Mohamed told USA TODAY Sports Thursday.
The rising interest in turn has fueled corporate backing, triggering even more growth. Last year, the WNBA announced Tangerine Bank as the league’s first Foundational Partner in Canada.
Sensing an opportunity amid this shift, a private investment group also launched a new Canadian pro men’s league in 2019: the Canadian Elite Basketball League, which started with six teams that year but since has expanded to 10.
“It’s a combination of everything happening from middle school to high school, to the NBA and the NCAA,” said Sbiet of North Pole Hoops. “The exciting part of about this all is it’s just the beginning.”
Follow sports reporter Brent Schrotenboer @Schrotenboer. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org