By Clemente Lisi, Executive Editor of Religion Unplugged – Get those brackets ready, another March Madness is again upon us.

The NCAA’s men’s Division I basketball tournament will enthrall millions with its bracket-busting upsets. It is, for many sports fans, the best time of the year.

While the much-anticipated tournament has become a cultural phenomenon that’s largely secular in nature, it also has plenty of religious connections.

March Madness typically takes place during the Christian liturgical season of Lent, which leads up to Easter. For some Christians, particularly Catholics, Lent is a time of reflection and penance.

In many ways, the tournament serves as a form of entertainment during this period, especially for colleges and universities with Catholic roots.

In fact, the trend of Catholic schools achieving success in Division I men’s basketball dates back decades. Throughout the 1940s and ‘50s, for instance, 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 has been very competitive, but falling short of winning it all.

This year’s 68-team field will feature seven Catholic schools. In addition, five are Protestant and one Mormon. That’s about 19 percent of the schools in this year’s bracket.

Jesuit schools dominate

Of the seven Catholic schools competing for the championship this month, four of them are Jesuit. They are Marquette, Creighton, Gonzaga and St. Peter’s.

While Marquette, Creighton and Gonzaga have established basketball programs and could go on potentially deep runs, St. Peter’s was the Cinderella story in 2022 (by reaching the Elite Eight) and could very well do it again this spring.

No ‘religious’ No. 1 seeds this year

This year’s four No. 1 seeds are the University of Connecticut, Purdue, University of North Carolina and Houston. None of them are affiliated with any faith tradition.

In fact, the last school with a religious affiliation to win it all was in 2021 when Baylor emerged as the nation’s top hoops program. It also marked an historic first for a Protestant college or university. Baylor, a Baptist school founded in 1845, had ever won a men’s basketball championship.

The tournament starts Tuesday with two First Four games, including a meeting between Virginia and Colorado State. The 32 first-round games take place this Thursday and Friday. The Final Four is set for April 6 to 8 in Glendale, Arizona.

Clemente Lisi is the executive editor of Religion Unplugged. He previously served as deputy head of news at the New York Daily News and a longtime reporter at The New York Post. Follow him on X @ClementeLisi.

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