Leave it to North Carolina to ruin a good story.
Had it not been for the incredible late-game heroics of Luke Maye on Sunday, the Final Four would have included a bit of Canadian content on each roster. As it stands, "only" three of the teams vying for the National Championship on the final weekend of the NCAA season will include Canadians.
For two of them—apologies to Dustin Triano's minor role on Gonzaga—the dream of cutting down the nets in Glendale on April 3 wouldn't be realistic without the significant production, leadership, and tournament excellence of a handful of Canada's best collegiate-level talent.
That Duane Notice punched South Carolina's ticket to the Final Four with a breakaway dunk against Florida on Sunday afternoon couldn't be more fitting.
For four seasons, the Toronto native has led the Gamecocks in relative obscurity (this is a football school first) while players from his cohort have drawn headlines as they've jumped to the NBA. While Andrew Wiggins, Nik Stauskas, and Tyler Ennis became first-round picks, Notice stayed behind. As Trey Lyles did the same a year later, Notice stayed again. Even after a strong junior season that saw him emerge as a major 3-point threat and win SEC Sixth Man of the Year, Notice eschewed pro dreams and watched Canada's premier long-range marksman, Jamal Murray, become the latest lottery pick from north of the border.
Whatever happens to Notice when he graduates, the St. Michael's product is getting the chance to do something special here in the NCAA Tournament. The Gamecocks had never been to a Final Four before this season, let alone won a national championship. As their third-leading scorer and one half of their senior leadership with Sindarius Thornwell, Notice has figured prominently for the biggest Cinderella still remaining.
Averaging 10.2 points, 2.6 rebounds, and 2.3 assists on the season, Notice has taken on an even larger role through four tournament games. In a breakout performance against Duke in the Round of 32, Notice scored 17 points and nabbed three steals. In the Sweet 16, his three triples provided a major spark in a surprise beatdown of Baylor. Even in a poor shooting game against Florida, Notice barely left the floor, head coach Frank Martin deeming him too valuable to rest for more than a few brief seconds. That's likely because Notice is among the best perimeter defenders in the tournament.
On Saturday, it will be Notice's defence the Gamecocks need most. Gonzaga's offence runs thanks to the engine that is Nigel Williams-Goss, and Notice figures to draw that assignment fairly often, with some Jordan Mathews sprinkled in for him. Notice is a major part of South Carolina's No. 2-ranked adjusted defence, and it's that end of the floor where both player and team have emerged as national talking points, and it's there where they'll need to beat the Bulldogs.
Oregon's status as the unofficial NCAA team of Canadian basketball fans was threatened in mid-March when Chris Boucher, perhaps its most intriguing NBA prospect, unfortunately tore his ACL. One of the best stories in all of college basketball, Boucher's future and the Ducks' standing as title contenders was thrown into question.
In Boucher's stead, fellow Canadians Dylan Ennis and Dillon Brooks have stepped up, forming a three-headed juggernaut with Jordan Bell.
For Ennis, a sixth-year senior on his third team and one of the oldest players in the nation, the culmination of his college career is a long-time coming. The brother of NBA point guard Tyler Ennis, Dylan's been relied on heavily to lead the team both on and off the court. Averaging 10.7 points, 4.4 rebounds, and 3.1 assists for the season, the Brampton, Ontario, native shook off rough opening-weekend games to shoot 9-of-16 over an upset scare against Michigan and a somewhat unexpected toppling of Kansas.
Brooks' tournament may not have quite the backstory, but it's done enough to push him firmly into the second round of mock drafts. Always a willing shooter, the Mississauga, Ontario, native has turned into one of the most dangerous high-volume shooters in the country, knocking down 41 percent of his long-range shots on 4.1 attempts per-game. He hasn't slowed down in four tournament games, either, hitting 9-of-23 from beyond the arc on his way to averaging 16.5 points, right in line with his season average.
Both players will have to be at their very best to topple the Tar Heels on Saturday. North Carolina is light on weaknesses, ranking in the top 20 in adjusted efficiency at both ends of the floor (Oregon does, too, though it trails UNC in both offence and defence). And in a Final Four light on potential lottery picks outside of Justin Jackson, Brooks in particular may be staring down the most important game of his career so far.
For the first time since 2012, there will not be a Canadian selected in the lottery. It could be the first NBA Draft since 2010 without a Canadian selected in the first round at all. Boring though that may be for CanBall hardcores on June 22, it is in no way an indictment of the pipeline of talent coming from the country.
While the NBA is witnessing the best era of Canadian influence ever and Canada makes a loud statement on the junior scene (four of the 12 players on the Team World roster at the Nike Hoop Summit are Canadians, and the team is being coached by Ryerson University bench boss Roy Rana), this year is simply an ebb at the very high end of the talent distribution. This year may still see a small handful of Canadian players added to the NBA fraternity, and even if it doesn't, the deep and obvious impact of a trio of Canadians at the Final Four speaks to the country's continued influence on the game at its highest levels.
Not everyone has to be an Andrew Wiggins-level talent to warrant excitement, and Brooks, Ennis, and Notice are pretty great reasons to tune in to the Final Four if, you know, the Final Four wasn't reason enough alone.