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UConn center Donovan Clingan (32) and Marquette guard Chase Ross (2) fight for a loose ball during the first half of the championship game of the Big East Conference tournament, on Saturday, March 16, 2024, in New York. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer)

James Keane: It’s still Lent, we know. But none of us gave up our streaming services for 40 days and another season is now upon us: March Madness! Like Lent, predicting the outcome of the N.C.A.A. men’s basketball tournament can involve some sackcloth and ashes. Also like Lent, it seems to go on for quite a while. Note that a tournament with March in its name actually finishes on…April 8.

This year has some special bonuses for graduates of Catholic schools because the tourney offers a bountiful supply—and not just the usual Cinderellas or Big East givens. There’s also no clear-cut favorite to win the whole thing, despite whatever nonsense UConn’s Dan Hurley is spouting.

One advantage of going full-bore Catholic in your selections in your office bracket is that the Catholic schools historically tend to punch above their weight in the tournament. Let us not forget that once upon a time, the Final Four had three Catholic schools in it: Georgetown, Villanova and St. John’s. One drawback of working at a Catholic magazine is that everyone picks all the Catholic schools, so you gain no advantage at all. Might as well just pick the University of Virginia, which one likely heathen on staff did a few years back and won the office pool with ease.

With that, let’s get down to brass tacks.

Some Catholic schools that are in:

Creighton, 3 seed
Religious sponsor: Jesuit

Regular season record: 23-9

Michael O’Brien:: Seeing Creighton in The Big Dance has become a regular occurrence, as the Bluejays are making an impressive fourth straight tournament appearance and seventh overall in the last 10 years.

Coach Greg McDermott, who has been at the Jesuit university for a formidable 14 seasons, recently signed an extension to continue coaching the Jays for the foreseeable future. The new contract is deserved—Creighton appeared in the Elite Eight last March, losing to eventual runner-ups, San Diego State. During his time with Creighton, McDermott has coached the most 20-win seasons in program history, and his Bluejays emerged from a buzzsaw Big East to earn a respectable #3 seed in this year’s tournament.

St. Mary’s, 5 seed
Religious sponsor: De La Salle Christian Brothers
Regular season record: 26-7

MO: Is a changing of the guard finally happening in the West Coast Conference? After years of domination by the Gonzaga Bulldogs, the Gaels of St. Mary’s won both the W.C.C.’s regular season championship and post-season tournament this year.

Their key to success? Lockdown defense and a fierce presence on the glass. Despite finishing fourth overall in the W.C.C. in points per game as an offense, St. Mary’s allowed just 58.7 points per game on defense, good for second-best in the nation. Oh, and they concluded their season with the best rebounding margin in the country.

However, their patient style of play may not suit the frantic nature of March. I also have some concerns about playing in a relatively weak W.C.C., but with a defensive and rebounding group that is that dominant, the Gaels have the potential to shut down just about any team.

Gonzaga, 5 seed
Religious sponsor: Jesuits
Regular season record: 25-7

MO: As for the Zags, their March Madness pedigree will have to carry them through the tournament after a relatively disappointing regular season. But if there’s one thing that longtime Gonzaga head coach Mark Few can do, it’s coach in March. Few has led the Zags to the national championship game twice since 2017; but after beginning the season ranked as #11 in the country in the preseason polls, it must feel deflating for Gonzaga to finish as the same seed as their historically decided “little brother” rivals in St. Mary’s.

JK: While I am delighted to see Gonzaga get their just deserts after two decades of bullying the rest of the West Coast Conference, I would argue the W.C.C. is no longer the runt of the litter, conference-wise. St. Mary’s and Gonzaga made The Big Dance this year, but Santa Clara and the University of San Francisco both also compiled 20-win seasons. That’s four programs with 20 or more wins—and the University of San Diego wasn’t far behind with 18.

Dayton, 7 seed
Religious sponsor: Marianists
Regular season record: 24-7

MO: As America’s Zac Davis would tell you (or maybe he wouldn’t), there’s not a whole lot to do in the Buckeye State, but Ohioans sure do love Dayton basketball. Last season, Dayton was top 20 in the country for average attendance, outpacing more traditionally popular programs like Louisville and Michigan.

The team is making its first March Madness appearance since 2017, which makes me slightly worried that they’ll need to kick into high gear to shake the cobwebs off. But Dayton places just outside the top 10 in the nation for effective field goal percentage, a sign of good shot selection. They also rank 21st in the N.C.A.A. for their three-point shooting prowess; teams that can make it rain from three in March tend to have fun.

However, their opponent, Nevada, has made the tournament five times since 2017, an impressive mark for a university without much historical success behind it. The Wolfpack made it all the way to the Sweet 16 in 2018, proving that the program is trending in the right direction. With a highly invested support system behind them, Nevada could very well give Dayton everything that they can handle and more.

Some Catholic Cinderellas

Duquesne, 11 seed
Religious sponsor: Spiritans
Regular season record: 24-11

MO: Just like their Catholic Atlantic 10 conference counterparts Loyola had in past years, the Duquesne Dukes have some inexplicable “it factor” going into the tournament.

After an unassuming regular season that earned them a #6 seed in the A-10 tournament, they rattled off four wins in five days, beating V.C.U. in a conference tournament final that absolutely nobody predicted.

The last time the Dukes went dancing was in 1977; interestingly enough, this was the same year that Marquette last won it all. Their head coach, Keith Dambrot, is also set to retire at the end of the tournament; the same man also coached LeBron James in high school.

Between this being their influential leader’s swan song, their first tournament appearance in nearly 50 years, and the coincidental Catholic influence on that 1977 tournament, something just feels special about this Duquesne team.

They also rank inside the top 30 in the country for scoring defenses.

St. Peter’s, 15 seed
Religious sponsor: Jesuits
Regular season record: 19-13

MO: N.C.A.A. hoops fan will never forget the run by the Jesuit school in Jersey City all the way to the Elite 8 as a #15 seed; the lowest seed ever to make it that far. And what seed are the Peacocks again this year? That’s right, a lowly #15 again.

That run must be having at least some psychological impact on both St. Peter’s and their opponents, mighty #2 seed Tennessee. I would be fascinated to know what veteran Vols boss Rick Barnes is telling his players. Is the 2022 St. Peter’s run a non-factor in their game plan, or does it demand this program be treated as a danger still?

Best Catholic team?

Marquette, 2 seed
Religious sponsor: Jesuits
Regular season record: 25-9

MO: As someone who has never adopted an N.B.A. team, as I find college basketball to be far more exciting, I have found it to be a thrilling ride to follow my dad’s alma mater this season (the men’s basketball team at Holy Cross, my own alma mater, still has a lot of work to do to return to March, but I’m incredibly excited to watch the HC women’s team play in the First Four tomorrow for the honor to play against Caitlin Clark and the Iowa Hawkeyes; Go Crusaders!)

The Golden Eagles battled their way through a Big East schedule to conclude their season with a 25-9 record, finishing as the #8 team in the country. You don’t need many other stats or storylines to back up why this was such a phenomenal campaign.

Marquette’s president Michael Lovell told America in an interview that although seeing expectations for the program come to fruition is always nice, he was confident in these student athletes from the season’s start.

“I would say that we’ve kind of met the expectations, and it’s not been an easy journey,” Lovell said.

“As with many teams, we've had some injuries that we’ve had to overcome. So considering all those injuries and what the expectations were, I’d say that the season has been what we expected. I’m very, very excited for the team to hopefully be making the long run in March.”

One of the major factors for Marquette’s success this year has been second team all-American and projected future NBA guard Tyler Kolek. Speaking on Kolek’s character and their relationship, Lovell began by saying “He’s a special player, and he’s a special person.”

Lovell remembers the first talk he had with Kolek, recalling “Even from that very first conversation, you could see his drive, work ethic and how he had high expectations of himself and what he could do for our program.”

Another key to Marquette’s success has been their imposing big man Oso Ighodaro, who was also named the Big East Men’s Basketball Scholar Athlete of the Year, the first such award recipient in school history.

The Golden Eagles have some special characters in their program and have proven they can hang with just about any team in the nation. They easily have Elite 8 potential, with the possibility of adding another national championship besides their legendary 1977 squad.

JK: Honestly, I think Marquette probably has the best chance of any Jesuit school to pull off a Final Four run. But our poetry editor Joe Hoover went there, and I just cannot listen to his craven boosterism for an entire year if they win. My money is on Creighton.

Some Catholic schools that were on the bubble—and didn’t make it.

Seton Hall (Diocesan Catholic), Providence (Dominicans) and St. John’s (Vincentians)

MO: Big East loyalists did not enjoy watching Selection Sunday this year; as Jim mentioned, UConn’s Dan Hurley sure didn’t approve.

After the Big East was widely considered the best conference in college basketball this season, many were left scratching their heads as to how only three schools from the conference (UConn, Marquette and Creighton) were selected to compete in the tourney—with three Catholic schools, Seton Hall, Providence and St. John’s, among the ones left out.

Seton Hall and Providence have the right to be asking questions of the selection committee, but St. John’s should be the team that feels they got the shortest end of the stick. Having the highest NET ranking of these three snubs at #32 in the country, Rick Pitino’s Johnnies will be on the outside looking in this March.

Call it passion or entitlement, but Pitino went as far as to suggest a major shakeup to the selection committee in addition to calling the group “fraudulent.” However he feels about it, St. John’s will have to wait another year to appear in their first Round of 64 since 2015.

Santa Clara (Jesuits) and the University of San Francisco (Jesuits)

JK: As I mentioned above, both these squads compiled more than 20 wins, once the benchmark for an at-large bid. Of course, neither Santa Clara nor U.S.F. had any chance at one, because the N.C.A.A. will never, ever stop loving its mediocre East Coast darlings. Seriously, did you watch Colorado State absolutely crush Virginia last night?

Loyola University Chicago (Jesuits)

MO: Not many arguments here: The Ramblers weren’t quite good enough to earn a spot in the tournament. This doesn’t mean that it still won’t be sad not to see the fan-favorites of the Jesuit basketball world and America’s sweetheart Sister Jean donning the maroon and gold in March.

Despite Loyola finishing with a share of the regular season title in the Atlantic 10, the committee must not have found the fact that the Ramblers finished just seventh in the A-10 in points per game scored and sixth for points per game allowed to be very impressive; Dayton finished higher in both categories.

But don’t worry Ramblers fans; for as long as Sister Jean (God bless her) is alive, this team will always have something incredibly special about it. Just don’t lose to a mediocre St. Bonaventure team in double overtime in your conference tournament again next season.

Will a Catholic school win it all?

MO: No. Arizona will.

JK: I’m taking North Carolina.

MO: I have picked two of the last three winners of March Madness correctly: Baylor in 2021 and Kansas in 2022.Who did I pick last year? Silly me with my heart instead of my head, picking Marquette in an attempt to use my very real predictive powers to help them win it all. They ended up losing in the second round, resulting in a super mediocre bracket.

This year, I’m back to going with my head, picking the Arizona Wildcats to cut down the nets in their home state. Think of all the Arizona fans that will pour out to State Farm Stadium if the Cats make it to the Final Four; they’ll essentially have two home games in a row.

Arizona has blindingly explosive scorers, ranking third in the nation as a scoring offense. Caleb Love is averaging 18 points per game for the Wildcats and is expected to be a second-round pick in the upcoming N.B.A. Draft. They also play with an incredible pace, finishing second in the country in fast break points.

The problem? They shoot the ball a ton, which has mostly done them well; but they also miss a ton of shots, ranking just 15th in the country in field goal percentage. Not a great correlation with their aforementioned third-best scoring offense.

But March Madness is all about teams that are hot, and if Arizona can find their stroke given the volume at which they shoot, they are going to be a very hard team to beat.

JK: I, too, am part of a proud legacy of March Madness victories, having won the office pool at America in 2022. This year? I would love to see St. Mary’s or Creighton or even Villanova (oops! Didn’t make the cut!) snip down the nets before “One Shining Moment” plays, but I don’t think it is likely. We’ll see some great runs—perhaps even an unlikely bid for the Final Four, but the big programs will prevail. Alas, it’s going to be the Tar Heels of North Carolina.

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