Fresh off HBO series, Gonzaga basketball returns to March Madness

The annual rite of March has arrived … or really, just begun.

The brackets for the NCAA men’s and women’s college basketball tournaments were announced on Sunday and Monday, respectively.

This year’s edition of March Madness features a total of 18 teams from Catholic colleges and universities: 10 on the men’s side, and eight in the women’s bracket.

Iona College, the University of Notre Dame and Seton Hall University each sent both its men’s and women’s teams to the tournaments. Both Seton Hall squads will begin their tournaments in match-ups against fellow Catholic schools: on the women’s side, a showdown with Duquesne University, while the men will meet Gonzaga University.

The Fighting Irish women’s basketball team of Notre Dame are making their 21st consecutive trip to March Madness, and their fifth consecutive as a no. 1 seed. On the men’s side, Villanova University and Xavier University earned the highest seeds among their Catholic peers, with each Big 10 school earning no. 2 seeds. Villanova spent three consecutive weeks this season atop both The Associated Press and USA Today Coaches polls, while Xavier opened its season 13-0 before finishing with a 27-5 record.

The men’s tournament tips off Tuesday night, with 16-seed College of the Holy Cross, in Worcester, Mass., as one of the four schools partaking in the “First Four” play-in games. The women’s tournament begins Friday.

The 2016 NCAA men’s tournament marks the 18th consecutive year the Bulldogs of Gonzaga -- the small, Jesuit school in Spokane, Wash., once deemed a Cinderella but now one of the nation’s top basketball programs -- have earned a spot in March Madness.

This year, the Bulldogs’ “march to madness” has been chronicled on HBO in a five-part documentary series, titled “Gonzaga: The March to Madness” and narrated by actor Liev Schreiber. According to the Seattle Times, HBO Sports filmmakers became interested in following Gonzaga from the program’s perennial status as a Cinderella story.

“Every March, Gonzaga rallies the global basketball community around them. The Zags are a team with incredible leadership, dedicated players and a history like no other,” said Mark Shapiro, chief content officer with WME | IMG, which partnered with HBO on the docuseries, in a statement.

In recent years, that Cinderella moniker has largely reflected the school’s size (5,000 undergrad enrollment) and its early tournament reputation during its tournament appearances streak, which began in 1999 as a 10-seed that advanced to the Elite Eight. Last season, Gonzaga compiled its best record in school history (35-3), and earned a 2-seed before it was eliminated for the second time in the Elite Eight. In 2013, it earned a no. 1 seed but was abruptly upset by Wichita State University, a Cinderella in its own right as a 9-seed, in the second round.

Early in the HBO series, which first aired Feb. 16, it acknowledged the Zags recent success: “A Cinderella you expect to see at the ball.”

The docuseries picks up Gonzaga’s 2015-16 season ahead of a two-game road trip February, tracking the team’s final six regular season games all the way through its West Coast Conference tournament championship – which netted the program an automatic bid to its 18th NCAA tournament. In between the practice sessions and game highlights, the series spotlights the families of Coach Mark Few and several players, and shows how the student-athletes unwind away from the court: team dinners, video games, bowling at North Bowl Lanes -- where they invited an exuberant fan named Gayle to join them for a game.

It also shares some of the traditions Gonzaga students have adopted during their team’s recent run of basketball excellence. In order to secure the best front-row seats in the student section for Senior Night, students embark on the “tent run,” where they watch Twitter to find the location of members of the Kennel Club, the organizers of the student section who distribute numbers to the coveted seats. With their spots secured, fans then have to camp out on Foley Lawn to hold their spots – or as they call it, tenting, “the true test of fanhood.”

The final episode of the series, which will feature the WCC championship game in Las Vegas, airs Tuesday night on HBO at 10 p.m., eastern. Previous episodes are available on HBO on Demand and its streaming services, HBO GO and HBO NOW.  

[Brian Roewe is an NCR staff writer. Follow him on Twitter: @BrianRoewe.]

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