West Region

'O Canada!' has special meaning when Syracuse faces Gonzaga in 2010 NCAA tournament

The road to Indianapolis is paved with dramatic snapshots.
By Zach Berman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 21, 2010

BUFFALO -- In the minutes before Gonzaga's victory over Florida State on Friday in the first round of the NCAA tournament, "O Canada!" preceded "The Star Spangled Banner" in HSBC Arena. It was hard to find someone happier than Bulldogs center Robert Sacre, a native of North Vancouver, B.C.

"We don't play it enough at Gonzaga," Sacre said. "So I thought, might as well take it in."

When the anthem is played before the eighth-seeded Bulldogs' game against top-seeded Syracuse in Sunday's second-round West Region game, there will be more players than Sacre who are appreciative. Two of Syracuse's top contributors have Canadian citizenship -- guard Andy Rautins and forward Kris Joseph -- although both went to American high schools. Joseph played at Carroll in the District. Gonzaga's roster includes four Canadians, three of whom receive regular minutes: Sacre, Bol Kong and Kelly Olynyk. The other, Manny Arop, is injured.

"It just shows there is talent out there in Canada," Joseph said. "Not too many people know that. But for there to be five guys on the court tomorrow from Canada, it's a great thing for us."

Joseph's brother, Maurice, plays for Vermont, which lost to the Orange on Friday. There were 66 Canadians throughout NCAA Division I men's basketball this season.

"There aren't many secrets now in Division I or especially with all the AAU things and international competitions going on," Gonzaga Coach Mark Few said. "So there's a good player somewhere, all of us Division I coaches are going to find out about it and go up there."

Rautins has played on Team Canada the past four seasons. His father, former Syracuse standout and NBA player Leo Rautins, coaches the senior national team. The other players have all participated in Canada's national program.

"The growth is far more than what you see there," Leo Rautins said in a telephone interview from Ottawa, where he was doing television work for Canada's version of the NCAA tournament. "The statement you're getting with those players, is players are making good decisions on what school to go to to develop their careers."

Leo Rautins said some Canadian players in the past have made bad decisions about what colleges to attend or whom they allow to influence them. Schools such as Gonzaga and Syracuse also make geographic sense for Canadians.

"It makes less sense for us to have these Texas kids than these Canadian kids," Gonzaga associate head coach Leon Rice said.

Some players, such as Joseph, leave Canada to face better competition in high school.

Joseph said he would recommend Canadian players playing in the United States, and that word spread about his profile quickly after he moved to Washington.

Canadian players are starting to become more noticeable on the AAU summer circuit, and the success of the players such as those on Syracuse and Gonzaga have prompted coaches and talent evaluators to take a look. Leo Rautins said Canadians are ranked throughout the top 100 players in the next six recruiting classes.

Few said players from Toronto and Vancouver can be found in prominent AAU tournaments from Las Vegas to Orlando to Kansas City to Texas. Coaches are also taking trips to Canada and watching the national camps.

"That always happens when you see someone have success," Rice said, "like at Saint Mary's with these Aussies. And then you start seeing more and more Aussies. So, you do see the same thing in Canada."

Kong and Olynyk both credited the Toronto Raptors entering the NBA in 1995 as an impetus for the growing popularity. Technology has allowed more NBA games to be broadcast in Canada, and the emergence of Canada native Steve Nash into an NBA all-star has also aided in the game's emergence.

Although hockey remains king, basketball's accessibility and affordability could make it the nation's highest participatory sport, according to Leo Rautins. The players think that Sunday's game is just an indication of what's to come in college basketball.

"I'd say in 10 years it might be 200 [Canadian players in the NCAA], at least," Kong said. "There are so many club teams now and basketball programs starting up everywhere on the east coast and the west coast."

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