The 2021 N.C.A.A. Men’s Basketball Tournament will feel different. Limited fan attendance. All the games played in the state of Indiana. The possibility of getting knocked out of the tournament not just by a loss, but also by positive Covid-19 tests. But a year into the Covidocene, we have grown accustomed to different, and college basketball fans are happy about a simple fact: Somehow, in some form, March Madness is back.
Perhaps the pandemic has kept your attention away from college hoops this year. Or perhaps your interest in the sport is limited annually to a few weeks in March. Or perhaps you just want to know something about the Jesuit teams you have advancing far in your office-pool bracket. Regardless, we’ll get you caught up.
St. Louis and Xavier had solid seasons, but found themselves on the wrong side of the bubble. Loyola Maryland and Fairfield made deep conference-tournament runs, but fell one win short of punching their N.C.A.A.-tourney tickets. In the end, four Jesuit teams are dancing.
College basketball fans are happy about a simple fact: Somehow, in some form, March Madness is back.
Gonzaga Bulldogs (26–0, No. 1 seed in the West region)
The motto of the Italian noble Gonzaga family is Ad montem duc nos, “Lead us to the mount.” Fans are wondering: Is this finally the year that coach Mark Few leads the Zags to college basketball’s highest summit? Over its two-decade transformation from endearing Cinderella to empress of the college basketball world, Gonzaga has accomplished just about everything: twenty-two straight N.C.A.A. tournament appearances, number-one national rankings, a Final Four appearance—everything but win a national championship. The Zags fell just short in 2017, losing to North Carolina in the tournament final.
This might be the best Gonzaga team ever. It enters the tournament as the top overall seed and Vegas favorite. The Zags feature three All-Americans: senior forward and leading scorer Corey Kispert, sophomore big man Drew Timme and do-it-all freshman point guard Jalen Suggs. Gonzaga averages a blistering 92.1 points per game.
The Zags’ pursuit of a title is also a pursuit of perfection: entering the tournament at 26–0, Gonzaga would be the first team since the 1976 Indiana Hoosiers to finish a season unbeaten if they win the tournament. In their 26 wins, Gonzaga posted a jaw-dropping 23-point average margin of victory. Therein may lie the only question about this squad: after coasting through a season in which they were rarely tested, how will the Zags respond to the pressure-packed moments that are sure to come in late March? A potential Elite Eight matchup against the battle-tested No. 2 seed Iowa Hawkeyes should give some indication.
Is this finally the year that coach Mark Few leads the Zags to college basketball’s highest summit?
Creighton Bluejays (20–8, No. 5 seed in the West region)
If Gonzaga fans are hungry for a national championship, Creighton fans would like to achieve a more modest goal: reach the Sweet Sixteen for the first time in the modern era of college basketball. Creighton basketball has had all kinds of success—20 regular season conference championships, 12 conference tournament championships, 21 N.C.A.A. tournament appearances—but a deep run in March has eluded the Bluejays time and time again. Creighton has never won more than one game in the Big Dance. Regular season Big East champions last year, Creighton was poised for such a run before the tournament was canceled. The Bluejays returned plenty of star power from last year’s squad, including three seniors who earned All-Big East Honors: point guard Marcus Zegarowski and forwards Damien Jefferson and Denzel Mahoney. Every player in the starting lineup averages double figures in points per game.
Unfortunately, discussion about Creighton’s squad has focused on off-court matters: head coach Greg McDermott’s use of an egregious “plantation” analogy in a speech to his team after a late February loss at Xavier. University administration decided McDermott’s comments were inexcusable but not unforgivable, reinstating McDermott as head coach in time for the Big East and N.C.A.A. tournaments after a brief suspension. After the damage done by McDermott’s remarks, a long road toward healing lies ahead. A couple of wins to unite coach, players and fans—and propel the Bluejays finally to the tournament’s second weekend—would be a good start. To get there, Creighton may have to win a second-round matchup against the reigning national champion Virginia Cavaliers, a balanced and well-coached team that, unfortunately, is plagued by Covid-19 issues.
Creighton fans would like to see their team reach the Sweet Sixteen for the first time in the modern era of college basketball.
Loyola Chicago Ramblers (24–4, No. 8 seed in the Midwest region)
Loyola Chicago is back in the Big Dance for the first time since its fairy-tale ride to the 2018 Final Four. Subsequent success has shown that run was no fluke—nor can it be attributed exclusively to the prayers of superstar centenarian chaplain Jean Dolores Schmidt, B.V.M, known to all as “Sister Jean.” Head coach Porter Moser has built the Ramblers into perennial winners; the team has captured three of the last four Missouri Valley regular season conference championships. The Ramblers received an automatic bid by winning their conference tournament, but they would have gotten into the field regardless: Several computer rankings have Loyola as a top-ten team nationally.
Senior center Cameron Krutwig and his mustache lead Loyola. The Missouri Valley Player of the Year has etched his name into the Ramblers’ record books, ranking in the program’s all-time top ten in points, assists and rebounds. A member of the 2018 Final Four team, Krutwig would like nothing more than to conclude his college career with another deep tournament run. He has lots of help, especially from lock-down defender and senior guard Lucas Williamson, the Missouri Valley Defensive Player of the Year. If Loyola can defeat Georgia Tech in the opening round, the Ramblers are almost certain to face number one seed Illinois in an intrastate battle many are eager to see.
Loyola fans are trying to enjoy every moment of this success, because many wonder if and when Coach Moser himself might ramble away from Rogers Park. It is the perennial curse of mid-major success: Coaches move on to bigger gigs. Moser, a Creighton alumnus who describes himself as a “Catholic kid from Chicago,” turned down the head coaching job at St. John’s University in Queens in 2019, but what if another Catholic school closer to home comes calling? Marquette University’s program is in its worst shape since the late 1980s, and its fans are desperate for a coaching change. Many think Moser, a Rick Majerus protégé, is the perfect fit, but the Marquette administration is unlikely to make a move. DePaul University, on the other hand, is searching for a new head coach. Expect the Blue Demons to try to lure Moser across town.
Several computer rankings have Loyola Chicago as a top-ten team nationally.
Georgetown Hoyas (13–12, No. 12 seed in the East region)
The casual observer of college basketball might not be surprised to see Georgetown among tournament participants: The Hoyas are, after all, the most accomplished Jesuit basketball program. Those who have followed head coach Patrick Ewing’s team over the past year, however, are stunned that Georgetown is dancing.
Last year, Georgetown’s program was in meltdown: players leaving the program mid-season after sexual assault and burglary allegations; the Hoyas losing their last seven games; more players departing in the off-season. The roster needed a complete rebuild. Ewing brought in six freshmen and two graduate transfers. Big East coaches picked the Hoyas to finish last in the conference, and the season began as predicted: Georgetown lost five of its first six conference games before being shut down for three weeks after a positive Covid-19 test.
Even after the Hoyas won four of six to close the regular season, no one expected them to do much at Madison Square Garden in the Big East Tournament. Certainly not dominate Marquette, knock off conference regular season champs Villanova, defeat a Seton Hall squad fighting desperately for its N.C.A.A. tournament life and then dismantle Creighton in the championship game to secure an automatic bid to the N.C.A.A. tournament. Four wins in four days, and the Hoyas are dancing again for the first time since 2015. After being stopped last week by Madison Square Garden security and asked for identification, Knicks legend Patrick Ewing aired his concerns: “I thought this was my building….Everybody in this building should know who the hell I am.” (His Knicks jersey hangs in the rafters!) They do now, coach. The Garden once again belongs to you and your Hoyas.
To continue their improbable March run, Georgetown will need more strong play from senior guard and leading scorer Jahvon Blair, imposing sophomore center Qudus Wahab and freshman floor general Dante Harris, who was named Big East tournament MVP. Georgetown tips off against Colorado in the opening round. A 12 seed against a five seed is always a favorite upset pick, and this case is no different, with many expecting the red-hot Hoyas to advance to the second round. If Georgetown plays like it did in New York last week, it will advance much further.
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