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While nobody in Montreal would suggest the Canadiens’ reign in popularity is waning, the interest in basketball can’t be denied.
“It’s pretty clear-cut to me that basketball has come to the forefront here in our city and the province,” said Dwight Walton, a former player with Canada’s national team. “The goal for players in Quebec no longer is to play at the Canadian university level or to play in (NCAA) Division I. These guys want to get to the NBA now and it’s no longer a dream. They’ve seen people in their community get to the NBA.”
Following an exhibition game last month between the Toronto Raptors and Boston Celtics at the Bell Centre — injured Canadiens goaltender Carey Price was among the spectators — Place Bell in Laval will be hosting the three-day Northern Classic beginning Friday afternoon.
The non-conference event — never before held in the province — features six NCAA Division I teams: UNC Greensboro, Hofstra, Stephen F. Austin, Quinnipiac, Middle Tennessee State University and Montana State.
While none of the schools is ranked in the top 25, Montana State and Quinnipiac sit first in their respective conferences. Hofstra boasts early-season victories against Princeton, Iona, George Washington and San Jose State, and is led by guard Aaron Estrada. He leads the team, averaging 22.6 points per game, and sits 12th in the country.
Unlike 2018, when the venue hosted an exhibition game between McGill and powerhouse Duke, these weekend matches count in the standings; each school holding early-season aspirations of qualifying for the prestigious 68-team March Madness NCAA Tournament. Montana State captured the Big Sky tournament last season, advancing to March Madness before being eliminated in the opening round. Middle Tennessee advanced to the second round in 2017.
“It’s March Madness in November in Montreal,” said RDS broadcaster Peter Yannopoulos, a former assistant coach at the University of Massachusetts. “That’s exciting for our community and basketball in this city. I think the fans will appreciate the level of competition and the sense of urgency these games will have.”
Quebec quietly is becoming a hotbed of NBA talent. The Raptors’ Chris Boucher grew up in Montreal and teammate Khem Birch was also born in the city. Oklahoma City’s Luguentz Dort was signed to a five-year, US$87.5-million contract last summer, while Bennedict Mathurin, selected sixth overall by Indianapolis, is a potential rookie of the year candidate, averaging 19.4 points per game.
As well, the Montreal Alliance completed its first season in the Canadian Elite Basketball League in 2022. Despite finishing last in the 10-team summer circuit, the club led the CEBL in attendance, averaging nearly 3,000 spectators at the Verdun Auditorium.
“I think it’s great (this tournament) has Montreal as a location — especially without any teams from Montreal playing in it,” Alliance general manager Joel Anthony, in France on business, told the Montreal Gazette on Thursday. “It’s great for the city. To have high-quality basketball in our city is great.
“Hockey historically has been the sport for our city,” added Anthony, a Montreal native and two-time NBA champion with Miami. “To see there has been this shift — it doesn’t mean it has taken away from hockey — means basketball is continuing to grow. We’ve always had a basketball culture in Montreal.”
It’s expected Evenko, the event’s promoter, will stage the tournament annually.
“We have some of the most knowledgeable and engaged fans in the country,” said Evenko senior vice-president Nick Farkas. “To be able to present an opportunity for them to see top level college basketball talent is something we’re proud of. Every year, we see demand for basketball grow. I think this is only the beginning.”
Three games will be featured each day, beginning at 2 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Opening tip-off Sunday is 11 a.m. Reserved seats and general admission are available at www.evenko.ca.
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Place Bell NCAA event latest sign Montreal’s becoming a basketball hotbed
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