College Basketball is a Religion

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catholic sevenEither Pope Benedict XVI is not a fan of college sports, or the recently retired pontiff has a horrendous sense of timing. Why? Because last week he made his exodus as the head of the Catholic church right in the midst of a landmark academic year for Catholic institutions in intercollegiate sports.

Yesterday Gonzaga, a Jesuit-based Catholic institution located in Spokane, Wash., ascended – we Catholics are big into ascensions – to the No. 1 ranking in the Associated Press (AP) basketball poll for the first time in school history. Mark Few (rhymes with “pew”), the head coach who has shepherded –we Catholics love a good shepherd, too — the Zags to an NCAA tournament berth in every one of his 13 seasons, told USA Today, “(These kids) have had a huge bull’s eye on their chest the entire time they’ve played at Gonzaga.

Gonzaga may be No. 1 for the first time in its history, but it is not even the first Catholic institution this academic year to be ranked No. 1 in the nation. That honor belongs, of course, to Notre Dame, which last November rose to No. 1 in the BCS football rankings. In fact, the Fighting Irish became the first institution of the Bowl Championship Series era to be No. 1 in the BCS poll while also having the nation’s No. 1 graduation rate among Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) schools.

Now, as it turned out, Notre Dame was not the best football team in the land this season –Alabama certainly exposed that fact in its 42-14 title game rout. And, while Gonzaga garnered 51 of 65 possible first-place votes in Monday’s ballot, most sincere observers of college hoops would stop short of calling them the nation’s premier basketball team. However, a 29-2 record, the nation’s best, and a 16-0 mark in the West Coast Conference, along with more than a dozen ceaseless seasons of outstanding basketball, helped earn Gonzaga that honor.

An honor, by the way, that has no real impact on the Zags’ seeding in the NCAA tournament, but still, it is a sign that this program has achieved a certain sense of maturity. If this No. 1 ranking were a sacrament, it would be the sacrament of confirmation.

Gonzaga may be more commonly thought of as a private school with a relatively small student body that is dwarfed by its basketball reputation – a Duke of the West, if you will. Or, due to its relatively recent dominance and its location in a sparsely populated city in the American Northwest, as the Boise State of basketball. Both analogies hold water, if not walk on water.

But Gonzaga is a Jesuit institution. A.M.D.G., as any alumnus of Gonzaga (or Georgetown, the nation’s oldest Catholic institution, which is also Jesuit) knows, is the motto of the Jesuits, and it is Latin for “Ad Majorem Dei Gloriam”, or “To The Greater Glory of God.” Whether or not media or broadcasters are comfortable discussing Gonzaga’s obvious religious affiliation, Catholicism is inextricable from the school’s identity. As it is with Notre Dame.

Unless the Zags, whose head coach has the same name as one of the four Gospel authors, stumble in their conference tournament this weekend in Las Vegas (Sin City!), they should get the No. 1 seed out west. And Gonzaga, which has advanced to the Sweet Sixteen four times under Few, could very well make it all the way to the Final Four. In fact, there’s no reason that this squad, which is led by a center from British Columbia, Kelly Olynyk, and a forward from Germany, Elias Harris, could not win it all.

But, to any longtime apostle of college basketball, this would not exactly be a…what’s the word?… a revelation. Since the inaugural NCAA tournament was held in 1939, seven different Catholic institutions have won a total of eight NCAA championships: Holy Cross in 1947, La Salle in 1954, San Francisco, led by the indomitable Bill Russell, in 1955 and 1956, Loyola (Chicago) in 1963, Marquette in 1977, Georgetown in 1983 and Villanova, which upset a heavily favored Hoya team the following season, in 1984.

Why Catholic institutions have treated hoops like a, well, religion, is an issue that may require more diligent catechism. However, the current AP poll shows six Catholic institutions among the Top 25. The nation’s second-leading scorer, Doug McDermott (23.4 points per game), plays at Creighton, which is also Jesuit. March Madness tips off each year with an opening round on the campus of Dayton, which ia also a Catholic school.

And of course, there is the Catholic Seven, a newly minted league that could begin play as early as next season. This league would include a septet of current Big East-affiliated Catholic institutions (DePaul, Georgetown, Marquette, Providence, St. John’s, Seton Hall and Villanova), but now Notre Dame is also discussing spending one year in the league, provided it begins play next season, before moving on to th Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC). As the nation’s premier Catholic university, Notre Dame would give the new league far greater value. And it might just be wise for the Irish to consider remaining there, at least for hoops.

Oh, and while the Catholic church may not be the most progressive body when it comes to the fairer sex, allow us to be. Catholicism, after all, is a branch of Christianity, the world’s largest religion. And currently the only dominant team in college basketball, men or women, is the Baylor women’s basketball team. The Lady Bears, defending national champs, are No. 1 in the nation and have won 68 of their past 69 games. Baylor is a Baptist-affiliated university.

Notre Dame, by the way, has the No. 2-ranked women’s team.

The meek may inherit the earth, but the mighty rise to the top of the rankings in college sports. It’s been a rather formidable academic year for Catholic schools in major revenue sports. You might even call it a crusade. In fact, the only Catholic college in disarray right now may be the College of Cardinals.


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