When Canadian Danilo Djuricic made the choice to pursue both academics and basketball at prestigious Harvard University, the junior forward never thought he’d have the chance to represent the Crimson at home.
But this past Saturday in Toronto, the Ivy League school showcased Djurcic and two other Canadians at the inaugural James Naismith Classic, which featured a one-day triple-header of NCAA men’s basketball at Scotiabank Arena. It marked the first time NCAA regular-season games were played in Canada.
Djuricic, from Brampton, Ont., was joined by Ottawa’s Noah Kirkwood and Toronto’s Luka Sakota in the Harvard starting five.
“To go play Division I basketball in America — I didn’t think I’d have this opportunity to come back home,” Djuricic said following a 10-point, nine-rebound performance in the opener, a 88-76 loss to the Buffalo Bulls. “This is an arena where I grew up watching amazing Raptors players.
“Speaking for all three [of us Canadians], it was definitely emotional coming back home. We’re so grateful that our coach and the program accepted the invite so we could play in front of family and friends.”
Harvard head coach Tommy Amaker applauded his Canadian trio’s composure.
“We wanted all three to start,” Amaker said. “We played well early and these three were the catalysts for that. I’m very pleased to see how they handled that. It’s not easy to come back home in front of family and friends and all the things that come with it. I thought they handled that very well.
“I’m a big fan of Canada and Toronto. It’s a great place basketball-wise and a world-class city. We love coming here to recruit. We’re hopeful more join these three Canadians here.”
Kirkwood, the Ivy League’s reigning rookie of the year, and Djuricic played for Canada’ historic gold medal-winning team at the 2017 FIBA U19 Basketball World Cup, which included a semifinal upset against the United States. It was Canada’s first international basketball championship.
But the trio has their sights set even higher — next summer’s Olympic Games in Tokyo.
Canada will host a last-chance tournament for qualification next June in Victoria, B.C. and Kirkwood said he would jump at the chance to play for the national team. Canada needs to win to qualify for Tokyo after a disastrous World Cup showing in August where they finished 21st without much of its NBA talent pool.
“I think if that opportunity came about where guys decide not to participate, that would be a great opportunity,” said Kirkwood, who had 10 points, five assists and four rebounds in 36 minutes. “I definitely caused some momentum last year with how I played and it’s great to see when that gets recognized.”
Rick Barnes, head coach at Tennessee, is no stranger to Canadian basketball, having recruited NBAers Cory Joseph, Tristan Thompson and Myck Kabongo during his 17-year coaching tenure at Texas.
Barnes recognized the importance of using the Naismith tournament as a recruiting tactic, not just for his team but for the university.
“Again that’s why we are here, to spread awareness on the game,” said the 65-year-old. “It’s not just for our basketball program but for our university.
“We want to be a diverse university and the fact we can cross nation lines and looking at our team we’ve gone to a number of places and we’ll continue to that.”