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Miracles on the Hardwood

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Catholic colleges have a very important place in the history of college basketball, going all the way back to the first NCAA tournament (Villanova was one of the Final Four schools in the 1939 tourney), through the era when the National Invitational Tournament (NIT) was just as prestigious as the NCAA and into the modern era which saw a year (1985) when three of the Final Four schools – Georgetown, St. John’s (NY) and Villanova – were Catholic schools. This deep connection between Catholic colleges and basketball is discussed in this very good book by John Gasaway.

If a reader is looking for information on the school’s theological history and how that relates to basketball, then this is not the book for them. If, however, a reader wants to learn about the ins and outs of basketball teams that played an important part of college basketball history, then this is one to pick up. This includes details on the seasons and games of some of the schools and certain personalities. Probably the best chapter on this is on Marquette University in Wisconsin and their colorful coach Al McGuire when they won the championship in 1977, McGuire’s last game as coach.

Not just Marquette, but most Catholic schools that have won a championship (either NIT or NCAA) or played an important role in the sport’s history are included. Examples are the University of San Francisco when Bill Russell was their star player, Georgetown during the John Thompson era and Villanova, both in their “perfect game” to win the 1985 NCAA championship (against Georgetown) and their recent success in 2016 and 2018.

Some of the passages about how Catholic schools have affected the history of the game are very interesting. The best of these is during the discussion of the period in which schools could enter both the NCAA and NIT tournaments or later when a school had to decide whether to accept one or the other. This was during the late 1940’s and early1950’s when the NIT was considered to be the more prestigious of the two tourneys. It was also interesting in that many Catholic schools chose the NIT because it was held in New York and since most of these schools were in the East, the travel costs were much lower because the NCAA tourney was always held in Kansas City at that time.

All in all, this was an entertaining and informative book that hard core college basketball fans will enjoy. More casual fans may find some of the details too intense, but it’s still a fin source of information on this segment of college basketball.

I wish to thank Twelve Books for providing a copy of the book in exchange for an honest review.

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College basketball fans probably have noticed something odd and interesting about their favorite sport. Catholic colleges and universities probably punch over their weight, as they say in boxing. In other words, they've had more great moments in basketball than in any other sport.

Think about it. The list of Catholic schools with a long tradition is a long one. Consider such institutions as Villanova, Gonzaga, Georgetown, Loyola (Chicago), St. John's, Providence, Notre Dame, Marquette, Dayton, DePaul, Saint Joseph's and St. Bonaventure. They've all had some great moments in the sun.

If there's a common denominator there, it's that basketball is their best sport - the one that draws them national recognition. The outlier is Notre Dame. As for most of the others, they tried playing football at some point but realized they couldn't compete at the sport's highest level. But in basketball, you only need to recruit a few good players at a time. Against the odds, these schools have done this - some better than others, of course. But all have had some Glory Days over the years.

Author John Gasaway decided to write something of a history of Catholic college basketball, entitled "Miracles on the Hardwood." Along the way, he's made an interesting discovery. The Catholic schools have about 12 percent of the nation's schools that play big-time basketball. They also have had 12 percent of the Final Four teams since 1939, and 12 percent of the national champions.

I suppose you could argue that the success is something of a carryover to the founding of the nation's universities. Many of them started as small, private schools in the Northeast and Midwest. That tradition didn't carry over to much of the South and the West (say, west of the Mississippi River). So it's a two-tiered system in a sense, and it's kind of nice that the basketball tradition has carried over. Maybe the perfect moment for these schools came in 1985, when three of them - Georgetown, Villanova and St. John's - all made the Final Four from the Big East Conference.

Gasaway could have written a ponderous book with all sorts of religious angles and implications. Instead, he mostly sticks to basketball - and that was a great decision. This reads like a book of selected highlights in college basketball history - that just happened to involve players and teams from Catholic schools. What's more, the book is so well researched that any reader is sure to learn something about basketball and its history. And I do mean any reader.

For example, Bill Russell's college career comes across as something close to underrated - in spite of two national championships at San Francisco. He essentially revolutionized the game while playing the Dons, with his remarkable skills above the rim. Yes, Russell eventually became the greatest winner in NBA history (11 titles in 13 seasons), but his contributions become even greater when outlined here. There's a great story about how an official waved off a spectacular dunk by Russell ... because he had never seen such a player before, and he didn't think it could possibly be legal.

Then there's the case of the NIT and the NCAA tournament. Sometimes it is mentioned that the NIT was equal in stature to its big brother, but Gasaway shows how it happened. The Catholic schools of the 1950s felt more comfortable traveling to New York City for the NIT if they had a choice - fewer classes missed, etc. It was a tradition that continued through 1970, when Marquette opted out of an NCAA big because of a disagreement about seeding. It's easy to look back now and talk about the history of teams that won NCAA titles in the 1940s and 1950s, but the best teams didn't always compete in those events.

Gasaway goes all the way back to players like George Mikan and Bob Cousy. He finds new stories about them and others, including personalities like Al McGuire. Heck, Loyola Marymount's moment in the sun even gets a chapter. The book also has some interesting if now forgotten anecdotes about the slow path of integration into the sport. The author not only has taught basketball analytics at Columbia (where were those classes when I was in college?), but he has a PhD from the University of Illinois. There are a few words that I needed to look up, so you'll feel smarter after reading this.

This is a book that feels like it has a rather narrow audience. Some younger readers might not care too much about the early days of college basketball. Along those same lines, the stories of the teams in the 2000s aren't quite as interesting - partly because there haven't been as many success stories, and partly because we're familiar with the rise of Villanova and Gonzaga.

Overall, though, "Miracles on the Hardwood" fits a niche nicely. It is better and more readable than I expected it to be - a delightful trip showing how - in part - we got to where we are today.

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If basketball is your sport, then take a look at MIRACLES ON THE HARDWOOD by John Gasaway, an analyst with ESPN. He explores in great detail "The Hope-and-a-Prayer Story of a Winning Tradition in Catholic College Basketball.” It is"truly amazing the number of readily recognized Catholic colleges with strong basketball programs – places like Georgetown, Villanova, Marquette, Gonzaga, Loyola Chicago, just to name a few. Not only are there memorable coaches from the past and present, there are also plentiful players across the decades like Bob Cousy (Holy Cross in the 40s), Bill Russell (San Francisco in the 50s) or Patrick Ewing (Georgetown, 1980s), plus nationally recognized icons like today's Sister Jean! Gasaway includes them all from the 1930s forward leading to many details which will appeal the most to the ardent fans. For more anecdotes from MIRACLES ON THE HARDWOOD, see the review in The Wall Street Journal:

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A solid history of college basketball told through the view of Catholic schools. I have been a fan of Gasaway's writing since the College Basketball Prospectus days. The book, however, left me with a big question: why do we care about Catholic schools?

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A well researched book that is a perfect read during March Madness, especially if you have an affinity for one of the Catholic institutions dominating the sport of basketball. The book will take the reader on a journey from the inception of the sport to the most recent championships by Villanova. Readers will enjoy the exploration of the past and gain a greater appreciation for the sport of basketball.

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