When the NCAA "March Madness" tournament tips off south of the border Thursday, fans in this country will have their best opportunity yet to cheer for Canadians who are playing starring roles in the three-week basketball tournament.
According to Canada Basketball, 33 Canadians are playing in this year's tournament – dubbed "the Big Dance." And, in a stark change from just a few years ago when Canadian players were mostly relegated to the bench, fans can instead expect many of them to dominate on the court.
"If you go back 10 years or so, Canadians certainly participated in the NCAA tournament," Canada Basketball CEO Wayne Parrish told CTVNews.ca. "But in most situations they were the 10th or 11th men who came in to mop up at the end of the game.
"The difference in the last five years, and especially in the last two years, is that so many Canadians are literally the 'floor generals' of their teams."
Top-ranking Canadians including Kansas University's Andrew Wiggins, Syracuse University's Tyler Ennis and the University of Michigan's Nik Stauskas have been leading their Division 1 teams all year, Parrish said.
"These guys are playing roles that just weren't the case five years ago. It's really changed quite dramatically."
The change is another sign of Canada’s emergence as a basketball nation, Parrish says. Last year, the country cracked the International Basketball Federation's top 10, by becoming the ninth ranked basketball nation in the world.
And Canada has the third most players in the NBA after the U.S. and France -- a situation that is likely to improve after this year's NBA draft (in which Wiggins is expected to be the number one pick).
Parrish credits this recent development of top Canadian talent to improvements in basketball training and coaching certification programs across the country. As well, young Canadian players now have more opportunities to be seen by talent scouts, he said.
He recalled being at the Nike campus about five years ago, when an international basketball scout told him that Canada had the world’s best 12-year-old player in Ontario native Wiggins.
"I didn't even know they ranked such things," he said with a laugh. "But Nike at that point in time was on top of the fact that Andrew Wiggins was the best 12-year-old in the world in their view. And he was already playing on those travelling teams against the best athletes and they had seen him in tournaments."
And it is Canadian stars like Wiggins and the 2013 NBA draft top pick, Cleveland Cavaliers forward Anthony Bennett, who will continue to inspire the next generation of basketball players.
"It's hugely inspirational," Parrish said. "What Canadian kids are seeing here, and what they'll see over the next two and a half to three weeks on television, they will see role models that they will aspire to. And they will realize that the NBA isn't a distant dream; playing at a major U.S. college isn't a distant dream."
And it's this slew of new home-grown basketball stars that will in turn push young players to work a little harder to reach a higher level of athleticism, he said.
"They will say 'If I work a little bit harder, if I take those extra 200 shots at the end of practice… I've got a chance of being there too,'" he said. "There's nothing better than that type of role modelling."
Beyond the NCAA tournament, Parrish said Canada Basketball is aiming to have the Canadian men's and women's teams ready to contend for a medal at the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro.
"We are on an awfully positive trajectory here," he said. "The future looks very, very bright."