03/13/2012 05:50 EDT | Updated 05/13/2012 05:12 EDT

Bonnies star Andrew Nicholson leads Canadian contingent at March Madness

Andrew Nicholson's timing is impeccable.

The Canadian practically single-handedly propelled St. Bonaventure into the NCAA basketball tournament in his senior season, a dozen years after the small school's last bid and nine years after it was rocked by an ugly eligibility scandal.

Along the way, the Mississauga, Ont., native, the most notable name among the 27 Canadians playing in March Madness, drew rave reviews for his performance this past weekend that many believe may have made him an NBA first-round draft pick.

"It just shows that my hard work is paying off," Nicholson said, barely stifling a yawn in a phone interview Tuesday.

The six-foot-nine power forward had reason to be tired. Nicholson the Bonnies (20-11) to three straight victories in the Atlantic-10 tournament this past weekend, capped by a 67-56 win over Xavier in the title game that earned them the 14th seed in the East.

Nicholson finished with a flourish with an eye-popping 26 points, 14 rebounds and eight blocks Sunday that Xavier coach Chris Mack called the best effort he has watched from the sidelines.

"He is an NBA player. Man is he good," Mack told reporters afterward. "We had a really good plan that we were able to execute in game one. He out-executed our plan. He's extremely long, he's skilled, he's unselfish, a poor man's Tim Duncan, by far the best player in our league and an NBA team needs to take him in the first round."

The team rolled into Olean, N.Y. — a city of about 15,000 that's a three-hour drive from Nicholson's family in Mississauga — at around 2:15 a.m. ET on Monday. A few hundred students were there waiting to celebrate with the team, and pass around the trophy.

"It was pretty wild," Nicholson said. "It's been a whirlwind. I'm enjoying it, I'm just taking it all in."

Exciting stuff for a school of just over 2,000 students and just 25,000 alumni. A St. Bonaventure official said 1,300 orders for tickets were placed in the first 24 hours for the Bonnies' matchup against Atlantic Coast Conference-champion Florida State on Friday.

Behind the 22-year-old Canadian, who earned conference player of the year honours, the Bonnies won eight of their final 10 games. They've also helped erase the sting of a program that was embarrassed in 2003 for using an illegal player, then saw the remainder of the team boycott the final two regular-season games after the conference suspended the player.

Nicholson didn't take up basketball until Grade 11 and then was sidelined for the summer heading into Grade 12 with a broken ankle.

Nicholson chose St. Bonaventure because the campus is close to home. His dad Fabian and mom Colmaleen were regulars at Bonnies' home games. The player with the seven-foot-three wingspan and size 18 feet was originally enrolled as a chemistry major but switched to physics because he was better able to balance the time demands with basketball.

He earned conference rookie of the year and has continued to improve each season. The 250-pound forward shot 7-for-13 from the field Sunday, drained all 10 of his free throws and his eight blocks were a conference championship record.

"I've been in the gym more, I'm a senior so it's all coming to an end, college-wise," said Nicholson, who calls the end "bittersweet."

While a physics career beckons eventually, for now he has his mind on the NCAA tournament and then the NBA draft, for which he's definitely done plenty over the past few days to make some general managers sit up and take notice.

As for his team's game versus Florida State on Friday in Nashville, Tenn., Nicholson likes the Bonnies' chances.

"The team that plays the hardest is going to win," he said.

Nicholson's strong play in the NCAA, he said, is indicative that Canadian basketball is on the rise.

Here are some other notable Canadians to watch in March Madness:

— Myck Kabongo, Texas Longhorns: The rookie guard from Toronto earned spots on the Big 12 All-Rookie Squad, and the All-Big 12 Honourable Mention Team. He led the team in assists, and was fourth in the conference, and is the Longhorns' third leading scorer. Texas, the No. 11 seed in the East, meets No. 6 Cincinnati on Friday.

—Kevin Pangos, Gonzaga Bulldogs: The rookie guard from Newmarket, Ont., made headlines just three games into his college career when he hit nine three-pointers in a game to tie the school record held by Dan Dickau. The performance earned him West Coast Conference player of the week honours. He went on to capture the conference Newcomer of the Year award. Gonzaga, No. 7 in the East, meets 10th-seeded West Virginia on Thursday.

—Robert Sacre, Gonzaga: The senior centre from North Vancouver, B.C., earned West Coast Conference Defensive Player of the Year honours, and was named to the All-West Coast Conference team. Sacre's 25 blocked shots tied for the conference lead. The Bulldogs led the conference in scoring defence (61.9 points allowed) and field goal percentage defence (40.1 per cent).

— Kris Joseph, Syracuse: The senior forward from Montreal has played a huge role in his team's sizzling season. The Orange is 31-2 and the East's top seed in the NCAA tournament. The all-conference first-team selection leads Syracuse in scoring, averaging 13.8 points (on fewer than 11 shots per game) and nearly five rebounds. Syracuse meet No. 16 UNC Asheville on Thursday.