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Add basketball to Catholic colleges' springtime rituals

By Michael Schulson

Religion News Service

Published: Wednesday, March 26 2014 3:05 p.m. MDT

Dayton forward Devin Oliver (5) drives to the basket against Syracuse forwards Jerami Grant (3) and C.J. Fair (5) in a third-round game in the NCAA men's college basketball tournament in Buffalo, N.Y., Saturday, March 22, 2014. Dayton won the game 55-53. Dayton is a private Roman Catholic university and one of nine Catholic school participating in March Madness.

Bill Wippert, Associated Press

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Clerical types might know Villanova or Dayton for their theology programs.

Aspiring priests might study at St. Louis University.

Ask Pope Francis about Gonzaga or Creighton, and he’d probably recognize them as schools founded by his spiritual order, the Society of Jesus, better known as the Jesuits.

But for many, at least in March, these schools don’t inspire thoughts of systematic theology and Sunday morning Mass.

At many Catholic institutions, Lent, with its tradition of self-discipline, is just one springtime ritual in the long march toward a very special day in April.

There’s also college basketball.

Sixty-eight teams make it into the NCAA Division I men’s championship — affectionately known as March Madness — each year. In this year’s tournament, nine of those schools are Catholic.

That number isn’t unusual. In the 2012 tournament, Catholic universities constituted one-fifth of the field. One in six teams in the 2008 tournament was Catholic.

Jesuit schools, in particular, are well-represented. Seven made the tournament in 2007. A full eighth of the field was Jesuit in 2012. Five competed this year — and that’s not including perennial powers Georgetown and Marquette, which both missed the tournament after mediocre seasons.

The nation’s top scorer this season, Doug McDermott, plays for Creighton. Tiny Gonzaga was ranked No. 1 in the country for much of last March.

These Jesuit numbers are especially striking considering that college basketball is dominated by large state universities. Of the 351 schools that play Division I basketball, only 20 are Jesuit, none of which has more than 10,000 undergraduates.

Why are so many Catholic schools in the top ranks of NCAA men’s basketball? There’s no special Catholic basketball gene, of course. Players on these teams don’t need to be Catholic. Theology classes may teach players about sin, but that won’t keep them out of foul trouble.

Strange as it may sound, the composition of March Madness brackets may have a lot to do with the Irish potato famine, American nativism and 20th-century Italian demographics.

A bit of history: James Naismith, a physical education teacher, invented basketball in 1891. The first intercollegiate game took place four years later.

In that same decade, according to census data, the number of Irish-born Americans was at its peak. Many had been driven across the Atlantic by famines. In the early 20th century, as basketball spread across the country, those Irish immigrants, many of them Catholic, were joined by an influx of Italians and Poles.

These immigrants gravitated toward the country’s urban centers. There, they encountered a culture, as well as a school system, that was often hostile to Catholics.

“You have urban immigrant populations that are largely Catholic, that are founding Catholic schools and creating this sheltered parallel universe of Catholicism,” said Julie Byrne, a professor of religion at Hofstra University who has written about the history of basketball in Catholic schools.

For low-income urban communities, basketball has two distinct advantages. It requires less space than football or baseball. And, because it involves almost no special equipment, it’s cheaper than other sports.

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