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How the long-bumbling Raptors have been major players in this year's NCAA tourney

Dan Wetzel
Yahoo Sports
Carter Vince
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High-flying Vince Carter and the Raptors captured the imaginations of young basketball players from Toronto. (Getty Images)

In 1995, the Toronto Raptors began playing in the NBA. You may not have noticed.

Over the past 19 seasons they've won a single playoff series, lost nearly 59 percent of their games (although they currently lead the Atlantic Division) and struggled to keep the few good players they ever had.

Which isn't to say the Raptors haven't had an impact on basketball. They impacted it, actually, in a remarkably big, if most unexpected, way … by helping create a tidal wave of talent that is overwhelming the NCAA tournament.

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Melvin Ejim, currently the leading scorer for Iowa State, was 4 when the Raptors were founded. Cyclones teammate Naz Long, a clutch guard, was 2, the same age as Nik Stauskas, the leading scorer for Michigan. Brady Heslip, Baylor's second-leading scorer was 5, just a year older than Dwight Powell, Stanford's top big man and second-leading scorer.

Each grew up in the greater Toronto area. They weren't alone. So too did just-eliminated stars such as Tyler Ennis, Kevin Pangos and Sim Bhullar of Syracuse, Gonzaga and New Mexico State, respectively.

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Nik Stauskas, Michigan's leading scorer, grew up in the greater Toronto area. (AP Photo)

Then there is Andrew Wiggins of Kansas, the potential No. 1 pick in June's NBA draft who could follow Anthony Bennett, formerly of UNLV and the No. 1 pick in last June's NBA draft. That'd be two consecutive top overall picks from the same Canadian city.

These are but a few of many. The Toronto Star reported there were 97 Canadians on college rosters this year, the majority from greater Toronto.

It's an unexpected influx of top talent from a city of over 2 million and a region that boasts more than 6 million. It's dictating how American college basketball is being played and has redrawn common recruiting territories.

These days, there may be as much elite talent in Mississauga as Manhattan.

It's one thing for colleges near the border – be it Syracuse (Ennis) or St. Bonaventure (Andrew Nicholson currently of the Orlando Magic) or Boston College (Olivier Hanlan) – to get up there. Now almost everyone is working Canada, and especially Toronto. That includes a slew of coaches from as far away as the Big 12.

"I think the success the Canadian players have had in the Big 12 has led a lot of additional kids to come to our league," said Baylor's Scott Drew, whose campus sits in Central Texas but finds Canadians familiar with his conference. He also jokes, of course, that "warm weather" helps, too.

Perhaps the chief reason the talent is there for the recruiting, the players say, is that long-bumbling afterthought of an NBA team.

"The Toronto Raptors," said Stauskas. "I think when they came in, we had an NBA team to watch every night. I used to watch every game growing up. And I went to some games. Having the Raptors around was definitely a positive."

Basically, it wasn't any different than any major city in the United States. Yes, a lot of kids, the majority of kids even, flocked to ever-popular hockey. But if that wasn't your sport, if you considered yourself too tall for skating, or you were simply mesmerized by hoops, well here was an example playing right there at home.

Suddenly basketball wasn't just an American thing, like football. It was Canadian, too. It was local.

Perhaps the best proof of the Raptors' influence on inspiring young athletes to play basketball is that Toronto produces overwhelmingly more talent than any other Canadian city, including Vancouver, which saw the Grizzlies last just six years before bolting to Memphis in 2001.

And the biggest impact on the Toronto kids wasn't Canadian Steve Nash – although the two-time NBA MVP certainly blazed a path. Instead it was the best and most dynamic player in Raptors history, straight out of Daytona Beach, Fla.

"Vince Carter was unbelievable, he was definitely my favorite, everyone's favorite," Stauskas said. "He came along just as I was starting to play basketball seriously."

Carter arrived from the University of North Carolina for the strike-shortened 1999 season and was named NBA Rookie of the Year. His high-flying style turned the fortunes of the Raptors around, the perfect presence to draw in fans.

Teamed with Tracy McGrady, big men Antonio Davis and Charles Oakley, and guard Dell Curry, the Raptors in 1999-2000 posted their first winning season and first-ever trip to the playoffs.

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Iowa State's Melvin Ejim, the Big 12 Player of the Year, has Toronto roots. (AP Photo)

It was the start of three consecutive playoff trips, including a first-round victory over the New York Knicks in 2000-01. No, the Raptors were never title contenders, and it all blew up soon enough – Carter was traded to New Jersey during the 2004-05 season.

The impact, however, was made. That run was new, exciting and swept people up. "The Raptors were big," Stauskas said. For a subset of Ontario boys of a most impressionable age, basketball was suddenly it. No need to apologize for liking it more than hockey.

So they didn't just watch, they played. By this point, local AAU-style traveling teams were well organized and began making trips during the summers to play in American tournaments. It went from lots of OK players and maybe an occasional star to loaded rosters. Soon Canadian players were jumping to U.S. prep schools on the East Coast to gain greater exposure.

It worked. College coaches took notice.

"The style of play is similar in Canada and the U.S.," said Drew, the Baylor coach who also has 11.5-points-a-game scorer Kenny Chery from north of the border on his team. "And the Canadian national and AAU programs have done a good job."

In a way, the Raptor kids all developed at once, and together.

"We all grew up playing each other," said Stauskas, who played for his uncle's traveling team starting at age 7. "And we all pushed each other to be successful. It's great to see everybody at this point doing well all over the college basketball."

The Sweet 16 continues Thursday with this unlikely Canadian flair. Toronto? Yes, Toronto.

And college hoops can thank the long, lowly Raptors, of all teams, for the inspiration.

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