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March Madness is one of the biggest events in American collegiate sports, but a pair of Canadians hope to steal the show for one of the better teams in this year’s NCAA men’s basketball tournament.
Dillon Brooks and Dylan Ennis have played prominent roles for the University of Oregon, which is seeded No. 3 in the Midwest region and plays its first-round game Friday against No. 14 Iona.
With a conference record of 16-2, the Ducks earned a share of the Pac-12 regular-season title and the top seed in this past weekend’s conference tournament, where they fell 83-80 to No.4-ranked Arizona in the championship game.
Missing from the contest was another key Canadian player, Montreal’s Chris Boucher, who tore his ACL in a semifinal match against California.
Dillon Brooks and Jordan Bell react to Chris Boucher’s injury: “I was crushed.” pic.twitter.com/Y8t8e93uef
The big man’s unique combination of size, defence and outside shooting will be missed, putting more pressure on the Ducks’ other two Canadian standouts.
Five of Oregon’s top seven scorers returned from last season’s team that came within one win of reaching the final four, including top scorer Brooks.
The Mississauga, Ont., native was named to The Associated Press’ pre-season All-America team, but his campaign literally started off on the wrong foot as a foot injury sidelined him for the team’s first three games.
The 6-foot-7 junior forward returned to once again lead the Ducks in scoring, averaging 16.0 points per game during the regular season.
Once considered a bit of a hothead, Brooks has learned to keep his emotions in check as he’s developed into a team leader. He has willed Oregon to victory at various times throughout the season with clutch shots, including a pair of buzzer-beating game-winners.
Brooks’ play earned him conference player of the year honours and he is a candidate for the John R. Wooden Award, given annually to the nation’s most outstanding male college basketball player.
A year ago, Ennis was sidelined by injury as he watched the school he transferred from (Villanova University) win the national championship.
The six-foot-two senior guard from Brampton, Ont., was granted an extra year of eligibility by the NCAA after a broken foot limited him to just 21 minutes played last season, and he’s made the most of it.
Ennis has started every game, setting a career high in scoring (10.8 points per game) while averaging 3.2 assists and shooting a respectable 39.2 per cent from downtown.
Defensively, he’s valued just as much.
“[Ennis] is our most versatile guard. He’s physical enough to guard bigger guys,” coach Dana Altman told Sports Illustrated.
Ennis has also been touted for his leadership, especially during his time on the sidelines last season.
With such intangibles combined with his skill set, Ennis could very well join his brother Tyler, a guard for the Los Angeles Lakers, in the NBA next season.
With four days off before their March Madness opener, Oregon has time to plan for life without Boucher, who led the Pac-12 in blocked shots per game at 2.5 and helped the Ducks set a conference single-season record for blocks.
To pick up the slack defensively, Oregon will look to Jordan Bell, who averaged 2.1 blocks per contest and was named the Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year.
Off the bench, Kavell Bigby-Williams will be called upon to play extended minutes, as he did in the conference title game against Arizona.
The Ducks haven’t won the NCAA tournament since 1939 — the year it was first held — but an opportunity presents itself this year despite the loss of Boucher and Oregon’s No. 3 seeding in the Midwest.
The region’s top seed, Kansas, lost its opening game in its conference tournament, and No.2 Louisville has struggled of late defensively, allowing just below 77 points per game in its six, going 3-3 in that span.
While a national championship is a tall order, a final four appearance isn’t out of the question for Oregon.
But one thing is for sure — the Ducks’ title aspirations hinge on their Canucks.