With but a handful of games left and conference championships around the corner, the brackets for the NCAA DI basketball championships are becoming clearer day by day.
On Thursday, we told you about 20 great teams to watch and while we were compiling our list, we found that there is a distinct Canadian flavor to some of the clubs.
For instance, Hamilton, Ontario born Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is a star for top level squad Kentucky. The freshman point guard is projected to go anywhere from the mid first to early second round of the 2018 NBA draft.
Last year, a couple of players at Vermont, Trae Bell-Haynes and Drew Uquhart, made our inaugural list of watch-worthy Canucks. They make this year’s list, ditto Kimbal MacKenzie of Bucknell.
There are quite a few newbies to add to this year’s ensemble. The teams listed are currently in the top 68 as seeded by teamrankings.com, which is fairly accurate. Here are 17 to watch for, ranked by each team’s stature in NCAA Division I basketball and relative chances at a tournament berth and/or moving on.
15. MiKyle McIntosh – Oregon Ducks
OK, we fibbed a little about one team, the Ducks, being in the top 68 ranked squads leading up to the tournament. But, the Ducks made it to the Final Four in 2017 and according to teamrankings.com, have a 16 percent chance of gaining a bid by winning the Pac-12, which is not outside the realm of possibility. Last year’s Ducks had three Canucks, Dillon Brooks, Chris Boucher and Dylan Ennis, all who played varying roles in the team’s march to the Final Four. The lone Canadian on the 18-10 Ducks this year is senior forward MiKyle McIntosh, of Pickering, Ontario. He transferred from Illinois State in time for the 2017-18 campaign and so far this year is fourth in team scoring with 10.8 points per game, as well as 6.3 rebounds and 1.4 assists. He has played his best basketball lately, averaging 13.2 points and 7.1 rebounds his last 10 games.
14. Kimbal MacKenzie – Bucknell Bison
The Bison are currently first place in the Patriot League and have a 73 percent chance of landing the 58th seed in the Big Dance. That percentage, we think, hinges a lot on winning their conference championship, as they are also ranked just 79th on the RPI poll. Oakville, Ontario’s MacKenzie has contributed greatly to the Bison’s 21-9 overall record and standing in the Patriot League. He is fourth in scoring for Bucknell with 7.2 points per game, along with 2.0 rebounds and 2.3 assists. He missed a chunk of games earlier this season, but has made up for lost time lately, averaging 9.7 points in his last 10 games, all but one of them wins. His best effort this season came against Army on Jan. 31, when he dropped a season high 18 points in a 83-71 OT victory, including 4-for-9 from beyond the arc.
13. Trae-Bell Haynes, Stef Smith And Drew Urquhart – Vermont Catamounts
Just ahead of Bucknell in the tournament rankings is traditional hockey powerhouse Vermont. The Catamounts, currently in first place in the America East conference with a record of 23-6, have a 79 percent chance of being seeded 53rd at March Madness. It makes sense, then, with the school being so close to the Canadian border that a slew of Canucks would play there. Back from the 2017 club that fell in the first round to Purdue are senior guard Trae Bell-Haynes of Toronto and senior forward Drew Urquhart of Vancouver, both starters. Joining them on the team for 2017-18 is freshman reserve guard Stef Smith of Ajax, Ontario. Bell-Haynes, who got an honorable mention for All-American last year, is first in minutes played (31.7) and second in points with (14.8). He leads in assists with 3.9 and steals at 1.2 per game. Urquhart is fifth in scoring with 10.4 points and first in blocks with 1.1. Smith, meanwhile, has 4.2 points and 1.8 rebounds in just over 11.5 minutes of play per game.
12. Jordy Tshimanga – Nebraska Cornhuskers
The Huskers, who are fourth in the Big 10 and have an overall record of 21-9, have a 44 percent chance of gaining the 48th seed in time for March Madness. They aren’t likely to win the conference championship and need to pile up a few more victories to ensure an at-large bid at least. Sophomore center Jordy Tshimanga of Montreal, PQ has been one of those unsung guys off the bench this season for Nebraska. He has averaged 14.1 minutes per game (seventh on the team) and pitched in 4.0 points, 4.8 rebounds (third on the team) and 0.4 blocks to the cause. He’s had a couple of good efforts down the stretch, too, including 11 points and eight rebounds in a win over Iowa on Jan. 27. Tshimanga followed that up with six points and six rebounds in a victory against Minnesota on Feb. 6.
11. Nelson Kaputo – St. Bonaventure Bonnies
In the history of the basketball program at St. Bonaventure, the Bonnies have only been to the tournament six times, the last appearance coming in 2012, when they lost in the first round to Florida State. This season, the Bonnies are fighting it out tooth and nail with a Rhode Island for top spot in the Atlantic 10 with a 21-6 record. They have a 73 percent chance to gain the 42nd seed, which could be an automatic for winning the Atlantic 10 or an at large. Being as the team is close to Canada, the Bonnies do have one Canadian and in typical fashion he is a quiet, unsung guy who has accepted a back-up role to highly rated NBA prospect point guard Jaylen Adams. Kaputo, from Toronto is a junior and averages about 11.2 minutes of playing time. He has averaged 3.7 points and 1.1 assists in his limited role, but when called upon to play a broader role he delivers. Such as the 20 points he dropped on George Mason in a 85-69 win in January, where he was 6-for-9 from three-point territory.
10. Nickeil Alexander-Walker – Virginia Tech Hokies
Alexander-Walker, a freshman guard from Toronto, is being whispered about as a potential sleeper at this year’s NBA draft. He’s had quite a season for the ACC’s Hokies, who are 20-8 and have a 65% chance of grabbing the 41st seed in the tournament. The Hokies seem to be gearing up too, having beaten top dog Virginia on Feb. 10 and then no. 10 Clemson on Feb. 21. Alexander-Walker, who is averaging 25.1 minutes of floor time this season, has scored 11 points per game (fifth on the team) and added 4.0 rebounds and 1.5 assists. In the big victory over Virginia, he shot 4-for-6 from beyond the arc for 12 points, which was the second highest Hokies output that game. Speaking of three-point proficiency, Alexander-Walker has been very good all season, dropping 40.7 percent of those attempts.
9. Kalif Young – Providence Friars
The Friars are right on the edge of a berth in the Big Dance, sitting with a 51 percent chance of claiming the 45th seed. They are in sixth place in the Big East with a record of 17-11, so their chances decrease if they lose many more games. Helping their cause was a huge triumph over Villanova on Valentine’s Day, but not helping it has been recent play that has seen them lose five of eight. The Friars have made it to the last four tournaments and were a First Four ouster last year. Sophomore forward Kalif Young of Vaughan, Ontario has done an admirable job in a reserve role, scoring 5.1 points and hauling in 4.6 rebounds per game, while averaging 18.1 minutes. Young had a pretty good game in the Villanova win, grabbing a team-high seven rebounds to go with three points and two assists.
8. Gabe Osabuohien – Arkansas Razorbacks
The SEC is a real dog fight this season and the Razorbacks are doing everything they can to stay in the hunt. They are 19-9 and tied with five other teams for third in the conference heading into the SEC championships. Toronto-born freshman forward Osabuohien, while he hasn’t played much this year has recently earned more floor time for being good defensively. He was particularly useful in a 94-75 victory over 26th ranked Texas A&M on Feb. 17, scoring a season high six points, along with three rebounds, an assist, a block and a steal in 15 minutes of playing time. The Razorbacks, according to teamrankings.com, have a 64 percent chance of obtaining the 36th seed come March and they will need Osabuohien to keep contributing like he has off the bench. They made it to the second round in 2017.
7. Kassius Robertson – Missouri Tigers
While quite a few of the players on this list are reserves or lesser-light starters, Toronto’s Kassius Robertson is the big man on the Mizzou campus and in the running for top player in the SEC. The senior point guard has earned all the accolades he has gotten, too, as he is playing just his first season in the SEC after coming over from Canisius College of the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference. He is leading the 40th ranked Tigers in scoring with 16.5 points per game and is first in three-point effectiveness at 42.4 percent (86 for 203). The Tigers, who have a 56 percent chance of attaining the 32nd seed, have an 18-10 record and are tied for third in the SEC (like Arkansas) with four other clubs. Robertson for his part, has been very good in recent games against ranked opponents, scoring 16 in a victory over Kentucky on Feb. 3 and another 16 as the Tigers beat Texas A&M on Feb. 13.
6. Mfiondu Kabengele – Florida State Seminoles
After starting out the season 9-0, the Seminoles have been up-and-down since, going 10-8 to sit tied for fifth in the nation’s toughest conference, the ACC (which includes top 10 teams Duke, UNC and Virginia). With a 75 percent chance of locking up the tournament’s 31st seed, the ‘Noles hope to replicate and surpass their 2017 result, which saw them lose in the second round to Xavier. The Seminoles have spread around their offence this season and have gotten stellar work out of reserve forward and freshman Mfiondu Kabengele, of Burlington, Ontario. After red-shirting in 2016-17, he worked hard in the off-season and has been rewarded with 14.4 minutes of floor time in 26 games. He has contributed 7.1 points, 4.8 rebounds and 0.7 blocks to the FSU cause.
5. Michael Nzei – Seton Hall Pirates
Playing in the nation’s second toughest conference, the Big East, has been good and bad for the 27th ranked Pirates. They started out the season 14-2, but have since crashed back to earth, sporting a 5-7 record. Of those seven losses, two came against no. 2 ranked Xavier and the other to no. 3 Villanova. They have won their last two and seem to have shaken off a mini-losing skid. They still have Villanova and Butler at home to close out the regular season in advance of the Big East championsip and the Big Dance (where they have a 89 percent chance of taking the 29th seed). Dual Nigerian/Canadian citizen Michael Nzei, a junior forward, has chipped in well in a reserve role, scoring 4.0 points and hauling in 3.8 rebounds per game. In his biggest game of the season, he scored seven points and brought down a game high 14 rebounds in a 90-84 win over Creighton.
4. Therren Shelton-Szmidt – Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders
For all intents and purposes, this is a learning season for Canadian freshman guard Therren Shelton-Szmidt of Mississauga, Ontario. And we can’t think of a better training ground than Conference USA top banana Middle Tennessee to learn the NCAA game. The 22nd ranked Blue Raiders, who are 22-5 are pretty much assured of a berth, given that they have a 89 percent chance at the 29th seed. Shelton-Szmidt moved from Mississauga to the States in 2015 to get better exposure, eventually landing at MTSU. In very limited time in his first go-around, Szmidt has used his touted shooting skills to hit eight of 24 three point attempts, while also grabbing 15 rebounds and six steals in 22 games (5.4 minutes average floor time).
3. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander – Kentucky Wildcats
Like his Canadian confrere Kassius Robertson over at Mizzou, Gilgeous-Alexander is a leader for the Wildcats and will get plenty of exposure at the tournament. The ‘Cats are pretty much assured a berth with 97 percent odds they’ll claim the 22nd seed and a 19-9 record, with many games against ranked opponents. Gilgeous-Alexander is a likely first round NBA draft pick this year and is second on his team with 12.9 PPG, along with 3.8 rebounds, 4.6 assists (first on the team) and 1.7 steals (also first). A freshman guard from Hamilton, Ontario, Gilgeous Alexander has been reasonably consistent all season and as the season has gotten into high gear, helped the ‘Cats end a four-game losing streak. First, he had six points, four rebounds, four assists and three steals in a victory over Alabama on Feb. 17, then dropped 18 points with five rebounds and seven assists as Kentucky beat no. 35 Arkansas 87-72 on Tuesday.
2. Kyle Alexander – Tennessee Volunteers
The SEC seems to be chock a block with Canadians. Kyle Alexander, no relation to Shai Gilgeous-Alexander at rival Kentucky, is enjoying the ride with the no. 11 ranked Volunteers. He has played a signficant role in the team’s 20-7 record and second place standing behind Auburn in the conference standings. With 100 percent odds they will get the 14th seed, it’s all but assured the Vols are in the tournament, where they haven’t been since losing in the Sweet 16 in 2014. Alexander, a junior power forward from Milton, Ontario, has logged 20.4 minutes of playing time in 27 games, chipping in 5.7 points, 5.6 rebounds and a team high 1.8 blocks per game. He has two double-doubles on the year, the last coming in a loss to Georgia on Feb. 17, where he had 10 points and a game high 13 rebounds (seven defensive). One to watch, for sure.
1. Eliel Nsoseme – Cincinnati Bearcats
Legend has it that before coming to Canada a few years ago, Congolese national Nsoseme hadn’t played basketball indoors or with shoes on, much less with rims and nets. The 6’9″ freshman small forward for the Bearcats is a feel good story now, having been discovered literally out of nowhere at Clarkson Academy in Mississauga. He couldn’t be on a better team to grow with either, as the Bearcats are ranked 12th in the nation and are a shoo-in for the tournament (first in the AAC at 23-4). He hasn’t scored much in his rookie season, but Cincinnati has enough in the offensive department. So he’s learned to use his athleticism to play defence, where in very limited minutes he has 45 rebounds, nine blocks and three steals (in 146 total minutes playing time).