Jesuit All-Stars: A team for the ages

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It was a battle for Jesuit supremacy when Marquette and Xavier met in the West Regional Final of the NCAAs last week. Marquette and Xavier are two of the 28 Jesuit universities in the United States, many of whom boast a proud and rich basketball heritage.

Jesuit schools have fared well in the tournament, winning six championships since the NCAAs began in 1939. In fact, five of the previous six Jesuit entrants in the Final Four wound up winning titles. The University of San Francisco, centered by Bill Russell, above, took back-to-back championships in 1955 and 1956. Holy Cross won in 1947, Loyola of Chicago in 1963, Marquette in 1977 and Georgetown in 1984. Santa Clara made the tournament in 1952, but failed to reach the finals.

Gonzaga became the seventh Jesuit Final Four entry by beating Xavier, and could become the first Jesuit school to win the championship in 23 years.

The list of outstanding Jesuit college basketball players, many of whom went on to win the NCAAs, would stack up well against any competition.

All-Time Jesuit All-Star Five:

C – Bill Russell, San Francisco

F – Patrick Ewing, Georgetown

F – Elgin Baylor, Seatle

G – Bob Cousy, Holy Cross

G – John Stockton, Gonzaga

Jesuit Reserves:

C – Alonzo Mourning, Georgetown

C – Dikembe Mutombo, Georgetown

F – Tommy Heinsohn, Holy Cross

F – Maurice Lucas, Marquette

F – David West, Xavier

G – Allen Iverson, Georgetown

G – KC Jones, San Francisco

G – Dwayne Wade, Marquette

G – Sleepy Floyd, Georgetown

G – Dana Barros, Boston College

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Cinderella Holy Cross on magic NCAA run

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Holy Cross celebrates win over Army at West Point en route to NCAA Tournament berth.

Like most Holy Cross fans, I never saw this coming. During a dreadful regular season the Crusaders finished ninth in the 10-team Patriot League, wound up 10-19 overall, and failed to win a single league game on the road.

Then Holy Cross then beat Loyola of Maryland 72-67 in the first round of the Patriot League tournament. Things started to get interesting when HC knocked off top-seeded Bucknell 77-72 in double overtime in the quarterfinals.

Looking for a bandwagon, I hopped on for the ride – namely a visit to West Point to see the Purple face Army in the semifinals. There the Crusaders jumped out to a 10-0 lead and never trailed, whipping the Cadets 60-38.

Miraculously, Holy Cross culminated its run through the Patriot League with a 59-56 win over second-seeded Lehigh. Again the Crusaders led wire-to-wire, and held on as Lehigh missed four straight three-pointers in the last 20 seconds.

Holy Cross became the first team in conference history to win four tournament games – all on the road – as well as knocking off the top two seeds in the tournament. The Cross has now won six Patriot League championships.

The Cinderella Saders are going to the Big Dance for the 13th time in their history. Bracketologists are speculating that they will face either Austin Peay or Farleigh Dickinson in a first round game, aka First Four, next week in Dayton, Ohio.

Holy Cross has had success in the NCAAs in the past.HC, led by a freshman point guard name of Bob Cousy, won the NCAA Championship in 1947, the school’s first appearance in the tournament. The Crusaders advanced to the Final Four in 1948, and made the Elite Eight in 1950 and 1953. In 1977 the Crusaders upset eighth-ranked Providence in an Eastern playoff before bowing out to top-ranked Michigan.

In recent years, Holy Cross suffered close, first-round losses to Kentucky in 2001, Kansas in 2002 and Marquette in 2003. HC dropped a first-round match to Southern Illinois in 2007.

Related Blog: Once upon a time, Holy Cross was king of hoops.


53 years later, NCAAs return to the Garden

This week, for the first time in more than 53 years, Madison Square Garden will play host to March Madness.

In the day the old MSG, located on the west end of Eighth Avenue between 49th and 50th Streets, was the mecca of college basketball. Between 1943 and 1950, seven NCAA championship games were held at the Garden. Wyoming, Utah, Oklahoma State (twice), Holy Cross, Kentucky and CCNY were the winners. CCNY also won the NIT in 1950, the only team to win both tournaments in the same year.

  • Wyoming’s Kenny Sailors, pioneer of the jump shot, led the Cowboys to the 1943 title over Georgetown. Wyoming then beat NIT champion St. John’s in a benefit game for the Red Cross.
  • In the 1944 title game, Utah edged Dartmouth, which survived the East Regionals, also at Madison Square Garden. Utah was invited to participate in the NCAA tournament after an Arkansas coach was killed and two players were seriously injured in a car accident.
  • Oklahoma State, then known as Oklahoma A&M, won back-to-back championships at the Garden in 1945 and 1946. Center Bob Kurland was named the outstanding player each year, playing for coach Hank Iba.
  • In 1947, the Crusaders of Holy Cross defeated Oklahoma in the championship game at the Garden. Coached by Alvin “Doggie” Julian, the Cross was led by tournament outstanding player George Kaftan and a freshman point guard named Bob Cousy.
  • Kentucky coach Adolph Rupp’s Wildcats defeated Baylor in 1948, the first of four national titles for the Baron.
  • The NCAA finals were held in Seattle in 1949, and returned to the Garden in 1950, where Nat Holman’s CCNY squad made history.

The following year, the NCAA tournament expanded from eight to 16 teams, and the Eastern Regional finals were held in New York for the last time.

On March 14, 1961, a first round tripleheader was held at Madison Square Garden. Princeton defeated George Washington, St. Bonaventure topped Rhode Island, and in the final game, Wake Forest trampled St. John’s. The Demon Deacons were led by Billy Packer, who was featured on the program cover that day and later made his mark as a CBS commentator.

St. Joseph’s (PA) won the East that year, but the NCAA later forced the Hawks to relinquish their third place finish in the tournament because of alleged student athlete involvement with a gambler.

All told, Madison Square Garden played host to 71 tournament games between 1943 and 1961, fourth on the all-time list behind the University of Dayton Arena (87), Municipal Auditorium in Kansas City (82), and the Jon M. Hunstman Center in Salt Lake City (81). MSG’s seven national championship games are second only to Kansas City’s 10.

The old Garden closed in early 1968, when MSG moved to its current location atop Penn Station.


Holy Cross Was Once King of Hoops

The Last Amateurs, John Feinstein’s highly acclaimed chronicle of a season in the Patriot League, talks about playing for glory and honor in Division One basketball — but not for NCAA basketball championships. That’s left to the big guys, the elite.

In fact, for the vast majority of the 342 Division One combatants — the small schools of the Patriot League, the Ivy League, the Summit Conference, the mid-majors, even the long downtrodden programs in the major conferences — just getting a ticket to the Big Dance is the Mecca, that one shining moment, the  equivalent of the North Carolina or UCLA or Kentucky making the Final Four and more.

But for the College of the Holy Cross, which lost in the Patriot League championship game to American University. it wasn’t always that way.

Glory Days
Once upon a time, Holy Cross (my alma mater), a small Jesuit college located in Worcester, Mass., with undergraduate enrollment around 2,700, was the best team in the country. In 1947, the Crusaders, behind coach Doggie Julian, NCAA tournament MVP George Kaftan and a freshman point guard named Bob Cousy, right, beat Oklahoma at Madison Square Garden to win the NCAA championship.

The Crusaders finished third in the tournament the following year, and were ranked No. 1 in the 1949-1950 campaign as they won 26 straight games to start the season.

In 1954, behind Tommy Heinsohn,, Holy Cross won the NIT back in the days when that meant something. Heinsohn and Cousy, below, are Hall of Famers, two key players in the Boston Celtics dynasty of the late 50s and 60s..

As late as 1977, Holy Cross was still considered a national power. That year, HC knocked off a good Providence team twice on last-second shots by forward Chris Potter, and led top-ranked Michigan at the half in the first round of the NCAA tournament before running out of gas down the stretch,

The following year, Sports Illustrated ranked Holy Cross and freshman of the year Ronnie Perry ninth in its pre-season poll, but the Crusaders never did achieve those lofty ranks. And they’ve never come close since.

HC and the Big East
When the Big East was founded in 1979, Holy Cross could have been a charter member. Providence, St. John’s, Georgetown, Syracuse and Seton Hall, all teams that HC once played on a regular basis, agreed to start the Big East, but the league needed more New England representation

However, athletic directors at Holy Cross, Boston College, Rhode Island and Connecticut agreed all four schools would remain a block. Take `em all or get none. If they couldn’t be separated, and the conference wanted the Boston market, which, of course, it needed, there would be a  big league.

“Connecticut had been very good in the Yankee Conference. Boston College and Holy Cross was a toss up; actually, Holy Cross had the better basketball tradition. But their president couldn’t be convinced,” said the first Big East commissioner, Dave Gavitt, about the league’s founding. “He felt academics would be compromised.”

DSCN1895 Former St. John’s coach Lou Carnesecca spoke to me, Lou with the SportsLifer right, about these inside Big East formative dealings during a talk at the 2007 East Regionals at the Meadowlands. He told me that Holy Cross was supposed to join the Big East, but the school’s president, the Rev. John E. Brooks, S.J., vetoed the move for academic reasons.

Eventually, both BC and UConn agreed to join, making the Big East a seven-team league in the inaugural 1979-80 campaign.

Villanova joined a year later in 1980. and Pittsburgh joined in 1982. Also in 1982, Penn State applied for membership, but was rejected when Syracuse cast the deciding vote against the Nittany Lions application.

Crusaders Come Close
Holy  Cross remained independent for several seasons, but eventually joined the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference (MAAC) to start the 1983-84 season. Seven years later, Holy Cross entered the Patriot League, and coach George Blaney led them to the league championship and an NCAA berth in 1992, the league’s second season.
Ralph Willard, like Blaney a Holy Cross grad, took over the program in 1999, and two years later the Crusaders were in the NCAAs .

Beginning in 2001 they made it to the NCAA tournament three years in a row. They gave both second-seeded Kentucky (2001) and a Marquette team that went on to the Final Four in 2003 major scares, eventually losing both contests by the identical score of 72-68.

And in 2002, the Cross nearly achieved immortality.

A number 16 seed has never won a game, excluding the play-in game, in the NCAA tournament. But Holy Cross came close before losing to Kansas, 70-59, seven years ago.

The Crusaders held a five- point lead with 12 minutes to go and were behind by only four points with one minute left before the Jayhawks finally secured the win.


Celtics-Lakers Would Be Historic NBA Final

Bill Russell and Red Auerbach combined to win eight NBA Finals against the Lakers.

They’re the Lennon and McCartney of basketball, the Rogers and Astaire of hoops, the Batman and Robin of the hardwood.

They’re the Celtics and the Lakers. These two trademark NBA fantasies have combined for 30 championships, 16 by the Celtics.

They’ve clashed 10 times in the NBA Finals, beginning in 1959 when the Celtics swept the Minneapolis Lakers in four straight to start Boston’s run of eight straight titles.

The Celtics won the first eight matchups; four went the full seven games. The Lakers took the final two, the last in 1987, each in six games.

In 1962, Frank Selvy of Los Angeles had an open jumper with a chance to beat the Celtics in Game Seven. He missed and Boston won in overtime behind 30 points and 40 rebounds from Bill Russell. In that Series Laker forward Elgin Baylor scored an NBA playoff record 61 points to lift his team to a Game 5 win at the Boston Garden. However, with a chance to win the championship on their home floor, the Lakers lost Game Six, and the combatants returned to the Boston Garden for the finale.

The following year, Boston’s Bob Cousy dribbled out the clock in the final game of his historic career as the Celtics once again triumphed, this time in six games.

In 1966, the Celtics held on for a 95-93 win in Game Seven to complete their run of eight straight titles. Boston coach Red Auerbach retired after the game, with Russell assuming player-coach duties.

The Celtics won another seven-game showdown with the Lakers in 1969, although Jerry West, right, was the MVP of the Series, the only player from a losing team to win the NBA Finals MVP. West, whose 29.1 playoff scoring average ranks third to Michael Jordan and Allen Iverson, had 42 points, 13 rebounds and 12 assists in Game Seven, but Boston prevailed 108-106 at the Los Angeles Forum.

Lakers’ owner Jack Kent Cooke was already planning his victory celebration as he ordered thousands of balloons suspended from the Forum rafters.

The Celtics and Lakers resumed their rivalry 15 years later as Larry Bird and Magic Johnson, right, squared off for the first time in the playoffs. And the Celtics again won in seven games, Bird averaging 27.4 points and 14 rebounds per game to win MVP honors.

The next year, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was the Finals MVP and the Celtics finally beat Boston, 4-2, after eight straight playoff losses. And in 1987, Magic Johnson was the Finals MVP, his “junior sky hook” proving to be the turning point of the series, giving the Lakers a 3-1 lead on the way to a six-game triumph.

And they haven’t played since. The Celtics haven’t won an NBA title since 1986, The Lakers won the title again in 1988, beating the Detroit Pistons. Los Angeles last won in 2002, completing a three-peat with a sweep of the New Jersey Nets.


Quick Hitters IV — SportsLifer Observations

Before we rush out to canonize Josh Beckett just yet, let’s take a look at the numbers. At age 27, he’s won more than 16 games in a season just once (20-7) last year, and overall is 77-52 with a 3.74 ERA.

Yes he’s been dominant in the post-season (he’s been there twice, in 2003 and last year), but he does have two losses. He’s not Bob Gibson or Sandy Koufax, at least not yet.

At age 27, Doc Gooden had 132 wins and a Cy Young….and look what happened to him. At age 27. Bob Feller had 112 wins, despite missing three full seasons and most of a fourth serving his country in World War II. Roger Clemens had 89 wins, two Cy Young awards and an MVP….and look what happened to him

And now Beckett has back spasms and may miss the Red Sox opener. He’s had injury problems before. Time to put a stop to the Cooperstown campaign — at least temporarily.

With the signing of David Carr to back up Eli Manning, the Giants now have two overall #1 selections on their roster — Carr and Eli. Makes you wonder if any other team has two #1s. Peyton Manning, Carson Palmer and Orlando Pace are among the few members of that elite #1 club still active. Michael Vick is not.

Prediction — the toughest ticket in New York sports history will be for Opening Day at the new Yankee Stadium in 2009.

Leigh Montville has written two great baseball bios, on Babe Ruth (The Big Bam) and Ted Williams (The Biography of an American Hero). The trilogy piece should be on Willie Mays, the greatest player many of us have ever seen.

Looking forward to selection Sunday, although I doubt my alma mater, Holy Cross, will make the big dance. Bob Cousy and Tommy Heinsohn are nowhere in sight.

My early picks for the Final Four — North Carolina, Texas, Kansas and Louisville. These are “draft” picks only, and subject to change, esp if two appear in the same bracket.

How do you spell Syracuse? N-I-T