The first Thursday night primetime game of the second week of the NCAA tournament on CBS featured eleventh-seeded Loyola University Chicago taking on seventh-seeded Nevada, while third-seeded Michigan and seventh-seeded Texas A&M were relegated to TBS. In a season marked by the “resolution” of academic fraud at UNC, Louisville’s stripped national championship and the FBI investigation into the pay-for-play underbelly of the sport, maybe the NCAA is realizing that the little guys–the guys not getting investigated by the FBI or indicted by the U.S. Attorneys’ Office–can help restore faith in college basketball.
And what better a person to help them do it than a 98-year-old nun. Yes, I’m talking about Sister Jean, the team chaplain for Loyola’s men’s basketball team that reached the Elite 8 this evening after upsetting sixth-seeded Miami in the first round, third-seeded Tennessee in the second, and seventh-seeded Nevada tonight. She is charming, has a contagious smile and, of course, is a nun. Her “good luck charm” is to pray during games. She even admitted to picking the Ramblers to lose in the Sweet 16 in her bracket. Most importantly, she’s not being investigated by the FBI.
While it might have been surprising for most Americans to flip on CBS (if they’re watching cable still) and see a team that hadn’t been to the Dance since 1985 rather than the Big Ten champs, it’s not a coincidence. The NCAA needs all the help it can get to save face in light of more perennial March Madness contenders being tied to compensating players and Sean Miller’s apparent $100,000 payment to DeAndre Ayton. Put simply, they need one of the “little guys” to prove that its broken system isn’t beyond repair and pure amateurism can ultimately win out. They might have a winner in Loyola.
Much like Stephen Curry’s Davidson team that made its Elite 8 run a decade ago, Sister Jean’s Ramblers stand for everything that makes March Madness special. They won the Missouri Valley Conference to receive an automatic bid into the tournament (the only way Loyola would have been invited to dance). Analysts never gave the team a chance in the first or second round as they took on Power 5 programs with massive budgets and decorated histories of success in March. They become the nation’s sweethearts when they reached the Sweet 16 and Elite 8 in dramatic fashion, and then cruised to victory Saturday night against Kansas State to earn their spot in the Final Four. And of course, they had an endearing secret weapon–Sister Jean.
Right now, Sister Jean is someone the NCAA needs, albeit not someone it deserves. Many prominent commentators argue that the NCAA has been willfully blind to pay-for-play for decades despite NCAA President Mark Emmert’s apparent surprise about the investigation. ESPN analyst Jay Bilas accurately asserted, “for the people in charge and specifically the president of the NCAA to talk about some code of silence in college basketball that people weren’t telling them what was going on, they knew exactly what was going on. . . . What, he and his staff didn’t know the system was broken two weeks before the [FBI] charges were filed in this matter? Of course they did.”
So, as the FBI continues to bring the NCAA’s broken system of gross shortcomings and inherent hypocrisies into the public eye, maybe it’s only right that Sister Jean be the organization’s saving grace. The question still remains, however, has the organization been in the wrong for too long to reconcile and atone for its sins against amateurism?
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