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Canada's Nembhard key part of undefeated Gonzaga team that has history in its sights

At this time last year, Andrew Nembhard and the Florida Gators were preparing to play Georgia in the second round of the SEC Tournament, with a date in March Madness on the line. Andrew's dad Claude Nembhard was in Nashville for the game.

At this time last year, Andrew Nembhard and the Florida Gators were preparing to play Georgia in the second round of the SEC Tournament, with a date in March Madness on the line.

Andrew's dad Claude Nembhard was in Nashville for the game. 

"And then we got the bad news," Claude said. 

That March 12 game never happened. A night earlier, the NBA shut down for COVID-19, and in a ripple effect, NCAA basketball was among the countless sports around the globe that went dark as well.

Now, the Nembhards have a trip to Indianapolis booked to hopefully witness history in the making.

After his transfer to Gonzaga last summer, Nembhard is part of a Bulldogs team that's seeded No. 1 in the NCAA tournament after a perfect 26-0 regular season. An NCAA title would make the Zags the first team to go unbeaten since the 1976 Indiana Hoosiers.

"We're all really excited for the opportunity we have ahead of us, we really enjoy each other's company, and we've been preparing for this the whole season," Andrew Nembhard said.

The 21-year-old guard from Aurora, Ont., has averaged 9.2 points and 4.2 assists off the bench to earn conference sixth man of the year honours, a different role after starting for the Gators. 

"With Florida, he was definitely the engine that pulled the train," said Michael Meeks, Canada Basketball's manager of men's youth player development. "Gonzaga, they go pretty deep. The great thing about Andrew is … he adds to and impacts winning. Since a very young age, his teams have always won. 

"He's just one of the smartest players I've been around at any age."

Nembhard moved to Spokane, Wash., with the intent to sit out this season and work on his game and his body.

"But the team realized it might be advantageous to get him on the floor. And he decided: you know what? We'll do that. And he's a big part of the team. I'd be lying if I said he wouldn't want a bigger role, but the team is winning and he's happy, and he's gotten better, and that really is the goal," Claude Nembhard said. 

Claude and Andrew's mom Mary have a hotel booked for Indianapolis — where the NCAA tournament is being held in its entirety in front of reduced crowds — for later rounds of the NCAA tournament, provided Gonzaga wins its first couple of games. 

It'll be the first time they've seen him play live this season. Watching a historic season potentially unfold from afar has been tough on the basketball family.

"It has been the worst," said Claude, who was recently appointed executive director of the Ontario Basketball Association.

Andrew Nembhard said the lack of fans has presented a challenge.

"Most of our games have been with no fans," he said. "It's been different just not having that energy in the building, we've kind of had to create our own vibe within the team."

The six-foot-five Nembhard has been doing his university classes online.

"From my place to the gym and back is kind of what it's been this whole year," Nembhard said.

The Zags, who earned the No. 1 seed for the first time in their history, open the tournament on Saturday against the winner of Thursday's game Norfolk State and Appalachian State.

The Zags racked up some impressive wins en route to Indiana, beating Iowa, Kansas, West Virginia, Virginia, Auburn and San Francisco, among others. They trailed BYU by 12 in the West Coast Conference tournament final before rallying to win 88-78 — becoming the first team to go into the NCAA tournament undefeated since Kentucky in 2015. 

Since coach Bob Knight's Hoosiers went unbeaten in '76, four teams have arrived at March Madness with perfect records, including Fred VanVleet's Wichita State Shockers in 2014 (they were eliminated in the Sweet 16).

Claude Nembhard said he and his son don't talk about the potential to make history in the next three weeks. 

"It is what it is. The likelihood of going undefeated is so difficult in sports," Claude said.

"Having said that, it's funny, Andrew went undefeated in high school at Montverde and won the national championship. And my younger son went undefeated last year and won a national championship. Bonkers.  

"It's very unlikely, but it's happened twice already in this house, so hopefully it will happen a third time."

Nembhard is one of 25 Canadians on rosters to start the NCAA tournament. Among the notables is Zach Edey at Purdue, who earned conference all-freshman team honours. In a recent game against Ohio State, the ball got stuck behind the backboard, and Toronto's Edey — who at seven foot four is one of the NCAA's tallest players —came to the rescue, poking the ball loose to the delight of the broadcasters.

"He's extremely unique" Meeks said. "The big man for us has definitely been a focus the last couple years just filling out the depth chart with players that can impact the game."

Jahvon Blair of Brampton, Ont., a senior guard at Georgetown, had 18 points in a rout of Creighton in the Big East final on Saturday.

Toronto guard Josh Primo has had a solid freshman season at Alabama, but suffered a sprained MCL on Friday and is listed as day to day. 

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 15, 2021.

Lori Ewing, The Canadian Press