03/17/2015 05:11 EDT | Updated 05/17/2015 05:12 EDT

Saskatoon-born Trey Lyles one of 28 Canadians on March Madness rosters

Whoever was working out at 6 a.m. at the Armstrong Pavilion in Indianapolis years ago would stop and watch Trey Lyles, intrigued by the scrawny fourth-grader who was doing layups while strapped in a weight vest, or skipping with a thick five-pound jump rope.

"His workouts were brutal, they were gruesome," says his dad Thomas. "But I wanted him to understand that if you're going to do this, in order for you to be the best, you have to understand how to work, and every moment on this court has to be productive.

"A person can be better than you, they can be more athletic, they can be stronger, they can be faster, they can be taller. But one thing they cannot do, they cannot outwork you."

The hard work obviously paid off as nearly a decade later, Trey Lyles is a rising star on Canada's burgeoning basketball landscape. The 19-year-old is a freshman forward for the Kentucky Wildcats, who ride a perfect 34-0 season record into the NCAA men's basketball championship.

He's also one of 28 Canadians on the March Madness men's rosters.

Lyles was born in Saskatoon to an American dad and Canadian mom. Thomas was there playing for the Saskatoon Storm of the World Basketball League. Trey has spent most of his life in Indianapolis, where he and his dad developed an early-morning ritual of hitting the gym together, rising each day at 5 a.m.

"It started out with me getting him up, and then it became such the norm, there would be days when I'd think, 'I'm just going to sleep in today. We're not going to go,'" Thomas says in a phone interview. "And he would sneak in my room and he'd be (whispering), 'Dad. Dad. Dad. Dad. Are we going to the gym?' This was like 5:15 in the morning, and I'm like, 'Oh my gosh, I'm so tired.' But I never said no."

Trey, who also played hockey and baseball as a youngster, would strap on a weight vest — this "little bitty skinny kid" — and Thomas would guide him through a rigorous session of layups, dribbling and shooting. He'd skip with a jump rope as thick as a washing machine hose.

"He kept wanting it, wanted more and more and more, and it just became a lifestyle for him," says Thomas. "And he would ask a lot of questions. He wanted to understand the game as well as the rules of the game, as well as just playing the game and that's what we've done."

There was a full-circle moment for Thomas last weekend. He was in Nashville, watching his son and the Wildcats roar to the Southeastern Conference title.

"I've always been on the sideline with him as a coach as well as his trainer, and I'm kind of his confidante ... we have a very, very unique relationship. And as I'm watching him over the weekend, it's almost like, 'Man, is this really happening?' It's so surreal because I just remember my little buddy and think, 'Wow.' I get choked up just thinking about it," Thomas says, before apologizing for getting emotional.

"I just remember my little buddy wanting to get up at 5 o'clock in the morning. Oh my gosh, wow."

Trey, who led his Arsenal Tech high school team to a state title last year in Indiana, also played in the McDonald's All-American game, the Jordan Brand Classic and the Nike Hoop Summit.

At Kentucky, the six-foot-10 power forward has started 16 of 31 games and is averaging 8.4 points a night. He draws comparisons to Carlos Boozer or Sean May, and is known as a skilled and polished player with great footwork.

Thomas, who's an R&B singer — he goes by T. Lyles — hopes he prepared his son well for college and beyond.

"I will say this, Trey was ready to play college basketball as a freshman in high school," Thomas says. "Of course he wouldn't have been as strong or as fast, but as for talent-wise, skill-wise, and understanding of the game, he was ready."

Trey was originally part of USA Basketball's pipeline, but has played for Canada since 2012, and helped the national junior squad to a best-ever sixth-place finish at the 2013 under-19 world championships. Lyles was second in scoring behind Milwaukee Bucks point guard Tyler Ennis.

The Wildcats open March Madness on Thursday in Louisville, where they face the winner of Tuesday's game between Manhattan and Hampton.