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Canada’s college basketball stars are set for the Sweet 16 | CBC Sports

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The third round of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament tips off tonight, and the women’s Sweet 16 starts tomorrow. Here’s a quick catchup on both brackets and a look at the top Canadian players trying to help their teams to a berth in their Final Four.

Men’s

They call this March Madness because, every year, upsets wreak havoc on the single-elimination bracket. The predictably unpredictable chaos is what makes the tournament a billion-dollar product.

Last year, the mayhem seemed to go maybe a bit too far as half of the No. 1 and No. 2 seeds failed to even reach the Sweet 16 while the Final Four ended up being a 4 seed, two 5s and a 9.

This year’s theme? The chalk strikes back. All eight of the 1 and 2 seeds are still alive, and the only double-digit seed remaining is North Carolina State, an 11. No one else in the Sweet 16 is seeded worse than a 6.

After winning the title last year as a 4 seed, Connecticut remains favoured to become the first back-to-back champion in 17 years. The top-ranked team in the entire bracket crushed its first two opponents by an average of 28 points.

One of the biggest (literally) threats to UConn’s throne is Purdue and its 7-foot-4 Canadian star Zach Edey. The Toronto giant won the NCAA player of the year award last season, and he’s favoured to repeat after leading the Boilermakers to another 1 seed in the tournament.

Last year, Purdue became just the second No. 1 ever to lose to a 16 in the first round. But this time, Edey — the NCAA’s top scorer and No. 2 rebounder — almost single-handedly ensured there would be no such humiliation. He poured in 30 points and grabbed 21 rebounds in Purdue’s first-round rout of Grambling State before adding 23 and 14 in a blowout of Utah State. Edey is the first player since the great Lew Alcindor (Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) in 1968 to record at least 50 points, 35 rebounds and a field-goal success rate of 65 per cent through two rounds.

But the path to the Elite Eight will not be a cakewalk. Purdue’s opponent on Friday at 7:39 p.m. ET is Gonzaga, the wildly successful mid-major school that reached the Sweet 16 for a remarkable ninth consecutive time.

The Bulldogs, a 5 seed, feature Canadian point guard Ryan Nembhard. The younger brother of Indiana Pacers guard Andrew Nembhard, who also played at Gonzaga, leads the team with almost seven assists per game and dished out a dozen of them in a second-round win over Kansas. Earlier this month, the Aurora, Ont., native broke the record for most assists in a single NCAA season by a Canadian.

The winner of Friday night’s Purdue-Gonzaga game meets 2 seed Tennessee or 3 Creighton on Sunday for a trip to the Final Four in Phoenix.

Illinois forward Quincy Guerrier, Canada’s all-time leader in NCAA games played, is also two wins from the Final Four after the Montrealer had 10 points and six rebounds in his team’s second-round win over Duquesne. The 3-seeded Fighting Illini face 2 seed Iowa State tonight at 10:09 p.m. ET for a chance to meet the winner of tonight’s matchup between UConn and San Diego State — a rematch of last year’s title game. 

I’m still not sure we can call Houston guard Emanuel Sharp a Canadian — his hometown is listed as Tampa and he was born in Israel, where his American dad and Canadian mom played pro basketball. But I get why people want to claim him. Sharp, averaging a dozen points going into the tournament, scored a game-high 30 in Houston’s thrilling overtime win over Texas A&M in the second round.

After dodging that bullet, the 1-seeded Cougars face 4-seeded blue blood Duke on Friday at 9:39 p.m. ET. The winner meets 2 seed Marquette or 11 NC State (the only real Cinderella left in the tournament) on Sunday for a trip to the Final Four.

Women’s

With its talent more concentrated among fewer elite teams, the women’s tournament always tends to favour the, well, favourites. This year is no exception, as all of the No. 1 seeds — undefeated South Carolina, Caitlin Clark’s Iowa, freshman phenom JuJu Watkins’ USC and Texas — reached the Sweet 16 along with three of the four No. 2s. Joining them are defending champion LSU and perennial power UConn, both 3 seeds.

All eyes remain on Clark, the sensational guard who broke the all-time major-college scoring record this season. The biggest star in women’s basketball (college or pro) narrowly avoided a stunning second-round exit as Iowa squeaked past 8 seed West Virginia. The underdog Mountaineers allowed Clark to score 32 points (exactly half her team’s total) but held her to 36 per cent shooting. Iowa plays 5 seed Colorado on Saturday at 3:30 p.m. ET.

The other main character in the tournament right now is LSU coach Kim Mulkey. The outspoken leader of the defending national champs made headlines last week by threatening to sue the Washington Post if it published a “hit piece” on her. The story in question is reportedly in the works but has still not been released. If LSU beats 2 seed UCLA on Saturday, it could set up a delicious rematch on Monday with Clark’s Iowa, which lost to the Tigers in the championship game last year.

The two Canadian stars in the tournament are both still alive.

UConn’s Aaliyah Edwards scored 20 points with 10 rebounds in an easy first-round win over Jackson State and added 11 and 11 in a closer second-round win over Syracuse. The senior forward from Kingston, Ont., who’s expected to be picked high in the upcoming WNBA draft, is the No. 2 scorer (17.6 points per game) and leading rebounder (9.4) for the Huskies, a 3 seed looking to reclaim its status as the premier program in women’s college basketball.

UConn’s incredible run of 14 consecutive trips to the Final Four ended last year with an exit in the Sweet 16. But star American point guard Paige Bueckers is finally healthy after having her last two seasons ruined by knee injuries. She’s averaging a monster 30 points, 10.5 rebounds and 6.5 assists in the tournament.

UConn faces 7 seed Duke on Saturday at 8 p.m. ET. The winner meets JuJu Watkins’ 1-seeded USC or 5 seed Baylor on Monday for a trip to the Final Four in Cleveland.

Canada’s other women’s star must also go through a 1 seed. Yvonne Ejim’s 4-seeded Gonzaga plays Texas on Friday at 10 p.m. ET, with the winner meeting either 2 seed Stanford or 3 seed NC State on Sunday for a Final Four spot.

Ejim tops all Canadians in NCAA women’s basketball this season with nearly 20 points per game after racking up 25 points and 14 rebounds in the first round and another 17 and 13 in a second-round win over 5 seed Utah. The stat-sheet-stuffing senior forward from Calgary leads Gonzaga in points (19.9) and rebounds (8.8) per game as well as steals and blocks. Read more about Ejim here.

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