03/20/2013 02:27 EDT | Updated 05/20/2013 05:12 EDT

Canada's rising star power in basketball evident as March Madness begins

TORONTO - Canada Basketball is running its own March Madness fantasy pool, with one unique rule: entrants must name five Canadian players to their teams.

There would have been slim pickings in years past. But there's not just an abundance of Canadian players this year, there's a wealth of star players.

From Gonzaga's Kelly Olynyk and Kevin Pangos to UNLV's Anthony Bennett and Nik Stauskas of the Michigan Wolverines, Canadians have taken the NCAA by storm, providing one of the most intriguing story lines of March Madness.

"When you can turn on (a game) almost any night during the season and see a Canadian playing, it clearly is a new dimension that we've entered here," said Rowan Barrett, executive vice-president of Canada's men's program.

Sports Illustrated dedicated six pages of its March Madness issue to players from north of the border under the headline "Canada's Got Talent."

There are 27 Canadian men playing in March Madness, and six women.

Olynyk, a seven-foot forward from Kamloops, B.C., and Pangos, a point guard from Holland Landing, Ont., have landed in the spotlight this season in leading Gonzaga (31-2) to one of the NCAA tournament's four top seeds.

"You have the best team in the country being powered by two Canadians — one's at the controls at the point guard and one's at the centre. Two Canadians are pulling the team," Barrett said.

Olynyk's breakout season earned him the West Coast Conference player of the year. The Canadian who averaged 17.7 points and 7.0 rebounds a game is also up John R. Wooden Award as the NCAA's top player.

He's also one of 21 Canadians who picked up regular-season awards.

"Awards in every single thing you can imagine, first team, second team, third team, MVP of a conference tournament," Barrett said.

Bennett, from Brampton, Ont., collected Mountain West Conference freshman of the year in leading UNLV, and is a projected top-five NBA draft pick.

"He's come and taken UNLV from obscurity, catapulted them into the tournament, he's one of the leading scorers among freshman in the NCAA (with 16.1 points a night)," Barrett said.

"Our players aren't just going (to the NCAA), they're the better players on their teams, they're the ones pulling the teams," he added. "They're getting that thought going into school that 'I'm going to be the man, I'm going to be the one that pulls and drives the team.' Those are the scenarios now that our players are looking for, and it's the level of expectation now as a result of the growth of our game."

Among other award winners, Bennett's teammate Khem Birch of Montreal was conference defensive player of the year, Olivier Hanlan of Aylmer, Que., (Boston College) was the ACC's rookie of the year, while Sim Bhullar, a seven-foot-five forward from Toronto (New Mexico State), earned WAC freshman of the year honours.

Bhullar is one of four Canadians on New Mexico State's roster — the others are Toronto's Daniel Mullings, Tyrone Watson and Renaldo Dixon — and is an intriguing March Madness story line himself. The 360-pound centre has his sights set on being the first player of Indian descent to play in the NBA.

Bhullar was named conference MVP, becoming the first freshman to earn that honour since BYU's Shawn Bradley 23 years earlier. It came after he red-shirted last season and lost close to 60 pounds.

"It's a blessing honestly," he said after last week's WAC tournament. "I didn't really think I could come this far, but you've seen how far hard work takes you."

In the WAC title game versus UT-Arlington, Bhullar scored 16 points, hauled down 15 rebounds and added five blocks.

"He's such a load down there," Texas-Arlington coach Scott Cross said of Bhullar after the game. "I think he's a guy that can help an NBA team."

The Aggies open the tournament Thursday against Saint Louis, whose interim coach Jim Crews joked to reporters at practice that a good way to practice guarding Bhullar was to get on someone's shoulders.

"I know people have used brooms and other things for way tall guys, we'll have to think about that a little bit," Crews said.

A Canadian is also a leader on a women's NCAA No. 1 seed.

Natalie Achonwa, a junior from Guelph, Ont., is a starting forward for a Notre Dame women's team (31-1) that is eyeing a third straight run to the NCAA championship game. The Fighting Irish have come up short the past two years.

"With the first two national championships and losing them, we still have that bitter taste," said Achonwa, who earned All-Big East first team honours. "We know what it feels like."

It was Achonwa's layup with 1.8 seconds left that lifted the Irish 61-59 over UConn in the Big East tournament title game last week.

"The fact that we won Big East gives us a taste of how great it feels to end on a note like that," Achonwa said. "Especially our upperclassmen know how it feels to lose in a championship game. I think that sour bitterness — we know what it feels like. And to have something where we're winning, ending our first season on a high note, we're definitely going to carry that. We want to fight for that."

Notre Dame meets 16th-seeded Tennessee-Martin in the first round on Sunday.