It's time for Hoops Heaven 2019: Why are there so many Catholic schools in NCAA brackets?

With just seconds left on the clock, Seton Hall star Myles Powell missed a 3-pointer that could have won them the game and the Big East Tournament. Instead, the sold-out crowd of 19,812 at Madison Square Garden in New York watched with elation and shock on Saturday night as defending national champion Villanova celebrated its third straight conference title.

Led by seniors Eric Paschall and Phil Booth, Villanova’s narrow 74-72 victory could very well mark the start of another impressive run that the Wildcats hope will culminate with championship. Villanova, which will make its seventh straight NCAA Tournament appearance, has won it twice over the past three seasons. The team’s dominance is a testament to its top-notch coaching, recruiting power and strong work ethic.

“These two seniors, they're going to go down as two of the greatest Villanova basketball players of all time,” Villanova coach Jay Wright said of Paschall and Booth during the postgame news conference. “You’ve got to thank God you had the opportunity to be a part of our lives. They've meant so much to all of us.”

Whether Villanova can once again lift the title remains to be seen. Which school will be crowned the nation’s top men’s basketball team is a question as ubiquitous every spring as office workers dragging down productivity as a result of watching March Madness. If the past is any gauge, the odds are very good that several Catholic institutions of higher learning, like Villanova, will emerge as contenders over the next few weeks.

For Wright and his team, God does play a big role in everything they do.

Villanova is the oldest Catholic university in Pennsylvania. It was founded in 1842 by the Order of Saint Augustine. The Wildcats can trace their roots to old Saint Augustine’s Church in Philadelphia, which was founded in 1796 by Augustinian friars, and named after St. Thomas of Villanova. Seton Hall, by the way, is also a Catholic university. Based in South Orange, N.J., the school is named after St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, patron of Catholic schools.

The phenomenon of Catholic schools achieving success in Division I men’s basketball dates back decades. Throughout the 1940s and ‘50s, teams like Holy Cross, University of San Francisco and La Salle captured titles. Marquette eventually emerged as a powerhouse in the years stretching from the late 1960s and early ‘70s. The 1980s brought with it the emergence of the Big East. The 1985 Final Four, for example, featured three Catholic schools (St. John’s, Georgetown and Villanova) and eventually won by the Wildcats. In recent years, Gonzaga had an extraordinary run that includes 21 straight tournament appearances and finishing runners up in the 2017 championship game.

“Catholic schools originated in or near urban areas and were able to tap into immigrant communities — largely Catholic and Jewish — that could participate in basketball more than in other organized sports,” said Rick Eckstein, a sociology professor at Villanova.

While Villanova captured last year’s men’s title, Notre Dame, a private Catholic university based in Indiana, dominated women’s hoops and were crowned national champions at the same time. Notre Dame is affiliated with the Congregation of Holy Cross, a religious order of priests founded in France.

The success Catholic colleges and universities have had during March Madness, which starts Tuesday with the First Four, doesn’t appear to be subsiding anytime soon.

While Catholic success on the collegiate level regarding men’s and women’s hoops may be a real thing, it doesn’t always translate to the larger sports landscape. Eckstein said most Catholic colleges fail to excel at football. For example, of the 65 schools that make up the nation’s five football power conferences, only two schools — Notre Dame and Boston College — are Roman Catholic. Football has always been largely the domain of state schools and mainline Protestant colleges.

“In the Big East, basketball is to our schools what football is to the SEC — it’s a religion,” Wright told USA Today in an interview last year. “Hmm, well, we are a Catholic school, maybe I shouldn’t say it like that.” 

Eckstein said the Catholic Youth Organization was once responsible for helping the urban poor play basketball in church gyms. It was only a few decades ago that Catholics lived primarily in urban areas — cities such as New York, Philadelphia and Chicago — and those same Irish and Italian immigrants were unable to get into most universities. Over time, these same schools became a magnet for African-American players.

Continue reading “March Madness 2019: Catholic schools look to maintain winning tradition,” by Clemente Lisi at the Religion Unplugged website.

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