(RNS) — March Madness ends tonight with the ultimate church league showdown.
For the first time in two years, the NCAA will crown a new men’s Division I basketball champion on Monday (April 5).
The game features teams from Baylor University, the world’s largest Baptist university, and Gonzaga University, one of the nation’s 28 Jesuit Catholic schools, dueling it out for the NCAA title in a climactic ecclesial clash.
It will be the first time a team from a Protestant university has squared off against a Catholic school for the men’s basketball title — and only the second time a pair of Christian schools have met in the title game. Whichever team wins will be the third team from a faith-based university to win the big dance in the last five years.
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Some faith facts as we wait for tipoff:
The inventor of basketball would be proud
In 1892, James Naismith, a once-aspiring preacher turned gym coach, introduced basketball to the world in an article appearing in The Triangle, a publication of the Young Men’s Christian Association. “We present to our readers a new game of ball, which seems to have those elements in it which ought to make it popular among the associations,” he wrote in the piece, which included an illustration of an early game.
At the time, Naismith was teaching at an International YMCA Training School (now Springfield College) and was told by his boss to create a game to “hold the attention of a group of unruly men,” as scholar Paul Putz put it in a 2020 interview. The game had to be played indoors in the winter and had to be easy to learn so it could be played at YMCAs around the world. He put up a pair of peach baskets on the wall, came up with a few rules and invented a worldwide sensation.
Naismith, a proponent of “muscular Christianity,” saw sports and fitness as an essential part of a balanced religious life, where spirit, body and mind all worked together. The game spread worldwide through the work of the NCAA and missionaries.
Though originally seen as a game for men, women soon embraced the sport with a few edits. In 1894, according to Putz, a Jewish coach at Smith College named Senda Berenson adapted the game for women.
Catholic schools are basketball powerhouses
If Gonzaga wins, it would become the eighth Catholic school to be crowned NCAA champs since a team from the College of the Holy Cross, led by coach Doggie Julian, won in 1947. Since then, La Salle (1954), the University of San Francisco (1955 and 1956), Loyola (1963), Marquette (1977), Georgetown (1984), and Villanova (1985, 2016, and 2018) have all won titles.
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Christian schools are having a basketball championship revival
No matter who wins, Monday’s game will mark the third time in five years a team from a faith-based institution has won the NCAA men’s title. Before Villanova’s title in 2016, there had been a 13-year gap in faith-based champions after Syracuse’s 2003 win. That was after a gap of nearly two decades following the back-to-back titles won by Villanova and Georgetown. Catholic university teams won three titles in a row from 1953 to 1955, including back-to-back titles from the University of San Francisco, led by Hall of Famer Bill Russell.
Baylor would be the first Protestant affiliated NCAA Division I hoops champ
Protestants haven’t fared as well in the NCAA Division I tournament. Baylor, if it wins, would be the first Protestant men’s basketball champion in the NCAA’s top division. (Baylor’s women beat them to the punch, winning in 2019). The school was founded by Baptists in Texas and remains a Christian university. Duke University, which has won five NCAA men’s basketball titles, has long ties to the United Methodist Church but is not officially a Methodist school.
Protestant schools have done better at the Division II and Division III levels. Kentucky Wesleyan has won eight NCAA Division II titles, including back to back in 1968 and 1969. In Division III, North Park University has won five titles, including three in a row from 1977 to 1979.
Saturday’s miracle shot had a faith connection
Jalen Suggs, whose buzzer-beater from just past the midcourt logo propelled Gonzaga to the championship game, is a graduate of Minnehaha Academy, a private Christian school in Minneapolis affiliated with the Evangelical Covenant Church. Suggs, a two-sport athlete, was also named the best football player in Minnesota while at Minnehaha. During his time at Minnehaha, the school’s building was partially destroyed in an explosion during work on gas piping at the building.