March Madness: Today, Yesterday, and Forever

Michael O’Brien ‘23 and Jimmy Casey ‘22

Chief Sports Editor and Sports Editor

After NCAA Basketball fans went starving last year due to the March Madness Tournament being cancelled due to COVID-19, the bracket is back.

It has been quite the season and will shape up to be a crazy next couple of weeks. With blue-blood schools like Duke and Kentucky out of action and new powerhouses like Illinois rising to the top, let’s see how each region is shaping up and which games fans should pay close attention to.

West Region:

No. 1 seeds are usually always favored to win their region, but this year No. 1 seed Gonzaga has dominated like few teams have before. Gonzaga finished their regular season with an astounding 26-0 record, becoming the first team since the 2015 Kentucky squad to not lose a game leading up to the tournament. However, no team that has gone undefeated in the regular season has ended up winning it all since the 1975-1976 Indiana Hoosiers. Will Gonzaga be the first team to end this drought? You’ll find out my two cents later on. Other heavy hitters in the West Region include No. 2 seed Iowa, led by arguably the best player in the NCAA, Luka Garza. One sleeper team I like to make a deep run in this region is No. 6 seeded USC, with an impressive regular season resume, with wins such as beating BYU by 26, beating UCLA twice, and another win over Oregon. Freshman Evan Mobley is one of the best players in the country, and I believe this Trojan squad can truly hang with anyone. Still though, my pick is for Gonzaga to handily defeat their West opponents and head to the Final Four. 

Photo Credit: Paul Sancya/Associated Press.

South Region:

Another chalk team I’m buying into this tournament is No. 1 seeded Baylor. Despite not winning their conference tournament, Baylor dominated the regular season to finish with a 22-2 record. Despite Ohio State’s amazing Big 10 tournament run, the other team I like to go all the way to the Elite 8 are the Arkansas Razorbacks. With two wins against Top 25 teams and finishing their regular season as hot as any team out there, winning 12 of their 13 last games, I believe this squad is dangerous. A first round matchup against Patriot League Champions Colgate, who run a very efficient offense, should be a closer game than most people think and will be a lot of fun to watch. Still, I’m rolling with the Baylor hype train and believe that they will punch a ticket to the National Semi-Finals.

East Region:

This is where the fun begins. In my opinion, this region has the most upset potential of any in the tourney. I’ve picked No. 8 seed LSU to knock off No. 1 seed Michigan in the second round to match up with No. 12 seed Georgetown in the Sweet 16, after both teams had incredible Conference Championship runs; LSU lost to No. 2 seeded Alabama by one point in the championship game and Georgetown pulled off a historic run to win the Big East tournament. Madness indeed. With Michigan out of the way, the team this benefits most is the No. 3 seeded Texas Longhorns. Texas won the Big 12 Tournament Championship, knocking off their in-state rivals No. 6 seeded Texas Tech and cross-state rivals No. 4 seeded Oklahoma State to win arguably the best conference in the country. With a winning record of 7-6 against Top 25 teams and veteran coach Shaka Smart at the helm, the Longhorns will dance all the way to Indiana to play in the Final Four. 

Midwest Region:

The obvious pick here is the No. 1 seeded Fighting Illini of Illinois, fresh off their Big 10 Tournament Championship, but that’s not how I’m seeing it. After making it all the way to the Big 12 Conference Championship, the No. 4 seeded Oklahoma State Cowboys will be hungry for more. The likely #1 overall pick in the upcoming draft, Cade Cunningham, has been lights out this season, and he will help the Cowboys go throughout March in style by making it all the way to the Final Four. Oklahoma State has an extremely strong resume, beating Baylor, Kansas, Texas, and West Virginia. Cunningham will have a Steph Curry-esque tournament, leading this OK State team all the way to the National Semifinals. Another Cinderella sleeper I’ve fallen in love with is the No. 11 seeded Syracuse Orange, and I’ve picked them to upset No. 6 seed San Diego State and No. 3 seed West Virginia to make a run all the way to the Sweet Sixteen. Crazy? Maybe. But think back to the last time Syracuse was a deeper seed in the tournament; as a 10 seed, they danced all the way to the Final Four. This program thrives in March, and Hall of Fame coach Jim Boheim will guide his team to a run most people wouldn’t expect.

Final Four: Gonzaga vs. Texas and Baylor vs. Oklahoma State

If I’m actually right here, these will be two of the best games in the tournament. For Gonzaga, they may take too much for granted after stomping their competition leading up to the Final Four, just like they had been doing in a questionably weak regular season schedule. This Texas team may be the hottest in the country after winning their conference tournament, and Smart has experience coaching in the Final Four, taking No. 11 seed VCU here in 2011 as a Cinderella of Cinderellas. Gonzaga may get punched in the mouth early, but I expect them to tame the Longhorns in an extremely close game. On the other side of the bracket, Big 12 rivals Baylor and Oklahoma State will give us another thrilling semifinal game. For as much as I love Cunningham and the Cowboys, Baylor seems to be the more well-rounded team. Although OK State beat the Bears in the Big 12 Conference Tournament, Baylor will respond and hand Cunningham his only poor performance of the tournament to advance to the championship game.

National Championship: Gonzaga vs. Baylor

Yeah, I know. Two No. 1 seeds isn’t exactly the most thrilling pick in the world, but these two giants are too good not to make it here. When it comes to picking a winner, I’ll point to Gonzaga’s potential flaws as a team and the daunting prospect of history on their side. This team only played six ranked opponents during the regular season, and although they won them all, did they face enough adversity to build a National Championship team? I don’t think so. When No. 1 seed Kentucky won every game leading up to the Final Four in 2015, everyone expected them to win it all; but they didn’t, even with a decently stronger roster than Gonzaga has now. Baylor has played more Top 25 teams, only dropping two games in the process. Gonzaga has also recently made the championship game in 2017, losing to a UNC team with more pedigree. I believe Baylor will be mentally and physically tougher, winning the National Championship game by a score of 72-68.

After hearing my picks, let’s learn about some College of the Holy Cross March Madness history from Jimmy Casey. 

While this year’s squad unfortunately didn’t get the chance to be one of the 68 teams participating on the big stage, I couldn’t help but ponder about our school’s storied basketball history which features both an NCAA Championship in 1947 and an NIT Championship in 1954. My grandfather was actually a member of the basketball program back in those days. He was on the team from 1949 to 1953, so he came right in between the NCAA and NIT championships. He was a part of some really awesome groups, and I’ve heard countless stories about them that he passed down to my dad. Yet, I had never researched just how great those teams were. Guys like Bob Cousy, Tom Heinsohn, Togo Palazzi, and Earle Markey were not only Holy Cross icons, but also college basketball legends. They made up some of the most formidable teams of that era and dominated on the national stage. It was a great time to be a Crusader, so join me as I take you on a journey back to Worcester in 1947.

Led by head coach Doggie Julian, The Crusaders dominated the regular season. Two-time All-American center George Kaftan was Holy Cross’s primary star, controlling the paint each and every game. Dermot O’Connell, Joe Mullaney, and Frank Oftring provided valuable contributions as complementary pieces as well. Oh, the Crusaders also had a pretty talented freshman too. His name was Bob Cousy. Cousy was clearly primed for an outstanding career, but in those days, freshmen didn’t usually play much at all. The fact that he even saw the floor in his first year is a testament to how truly special the “Houdini of the Hardwood” really was. Although he only averaged 7.6 points per game, Cousy was the perfect point guard to orchestrate a capable squad like Holy Cross.

After finishing with a 27-3 record, Holy Cross headed into postseason play on a roll. The 1947 NCAA Tournament was only the ninth of its kind. With only eight teams participating, the tournament was a far cry from what it is now. However, it was still one of the premier basketball tournaments in the nation at the time, second only to the National Invitation Tournament (NIT). It might not have necessarily been “March Madness,” but it was a competition of some of the very best teams in the country, and Holy Cross was a part of that group. The Crusaders opened up against Navy. Propelled by a combined 33 points from Joe Mullaney and George Kaftan, they defeated the Midshipmen by eight. The squad rode their momentum into the semifinals, beating the City College of New York handily. Kaftan put on a show with 30 points in the Crusaders’ 15-point victory. The win set the stage for the national championship against Oklahoma. This was the absolute pinnacle of college sports – a sold-out Madison Square Garden, thousands of people, and the two best teams in the country facing off. The tournament as a whole might not have been “madness” just yet, but I’m sure the arena that night was nothing short of chaos.

The game was tightly contested throughout. The Sooners held a 31-28 lead at halftime, but, after a strong surge to start the second half, Holy Cross gained control and didn’t look back. It was a balanced attack for the Crusaders, as they had three players score in the double digits – Kaftan with 18, O’Connell with 16, and Oftring with 14. Bob McMullen also chipped in with eight points. They ended up winning the game 58-47. Kaftan took home the honors for the Tournament’s Most Outstanding Player, etching his name in the conversation of college basketball’s greatest players. The display that the Crusaders put on during the tournament thrusted them into the national spotlight and showed that they were on the upper echelon of college basketball.

Following their championship season, Holy Cross stayed near the top of national rankings. Bob Cousy assumed a bigger role and grew to be arguably the greatest player in school history before making his way to an illustrious NBA career. He led the Crusaders back to the tournament twice but unfortunately failed to make another championship game. However, having a player of that caliber was extremely beneficial in terms of recruiting. One of the best players in the country chose Holy Cross, so why shouldn’t others? Suddenly, the Hill became an attractive place for high school players to consider playing. Earle Markey was the first of these big-name recruits to commit to Holy Cross. He was a supremely talented guard who immediately made an impact when he got the chance during his sophomore season. Then came high school All-American Togo Palazzi, who was widely regarded as a top five player in the nation at the time. After a good sophomore season, Palazzi erupted onto the scene in his junior year, averaging an incredible stat line of 22.8 points and 16.3 rebounds per game. Headed by these two stars, the Crusaders were impressive in 1953, which was Markey’s senior season. The duo guided their group to the 1953 NCAA Tournament, where they lost in the East Regional Final to NBA legend Bob Pettit’s LSU Tigers. Losing Markey was a huge loss, but Holy Cross wasn’t finished. They merely reloaded.

The Crusaders welcomed a new superstar to the lineup – NBA and Celtics icon Tom Heinsohn. Heinsohn and Palazzi were two of the most renowned players in the country at the time. Standing at 6’7” and 6’4” respectively, they posed a serious threat to every team they faced. Palazzi turned in yet another historic season, averaging a whopping 24.8 points and 13.6 rebounds per game, while Heinsohn added 15.9 points and 10.7 rebounds per game as well. It was pure domination by the two big men. Ron Perry also contributed 12.6 points and 3.2 rebounds per game for the Crusaders, so they had a proven core of stars. They easily rolled through nearly their entire schedule, losing only twice in 28 games. They finished third in the Final AP Poll for the season, which earned them a trip to the NIT.

Now, I know what you might be thinking: “The current NIT is dwarfed by March Madness. Why is an NIT bid impressive?” Well, at the time, the NIT was regarded as the most prestigious and important college basketball tournament in the country. The NCAA Tournament was exceptionally significant as well, but the NIT had a few distinct features that allowed for a better and a more competitive field. Being invited to the NIT was a great honor, and winning it meant that you were likely the best college basketball team in the United States. Thus, the third ranked Crusaders found themselves amongst the most elite collection of squads in college basketball.

Photo Credit: T&G

St. Francis (N.Y.) was Holy Cross’ first matchup, and the Crusaders didn’t miss a beat. Behind 25 points from Palazzi, they routed the Terriers by 24 points to advance to the semifinal game against Western Kentucky. While this game was much closer than the first, the Crusaders again rode Palazzi’s hot hand. He dictated the game with an impressive 32 points as Holy Cross narrowly held on, winning the game 75-69. Joe Liebler produced his second straight double-digit game with 15 points, while Heinsohn had 13 himself. With this win, they advanced to the NIT final against top-ranked Duquesne. Once again, the Crusaders found themselves on the biggest stage in front of a sold-out Madison Square Garden. They were seeking to become the only ever team to win both an NCAA championship and an NIT championship, and they were determined to do just that. The duo of Palazzi and Heinsohn fittingly posted two 20-point games as Holy Cross ran away with the NIT title. They won by a score of 71-62. Palazzi and Heinsohn were named to the All-Tournament team, and Palazzi won Tournament MVP. Holy Cross was once again at the top of the college basketball world.

These historic teams cemented Holy Cross’ place in college basketball history. And while the landscape of the sport has expanded and changed in many ways since those days, we should never forget when the Crusaders were at the very top of the mountain (the metaphorical college basketball mountain, not Mount St. James, although both are true). Our school has produced some of the greatest teams and players in college basketball history. That’s not half bad for a small Jesuit college in Worcester, right? Go Saders!

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