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Gonzaga, Xavier share many traits, including no football teams to share spotlight

Xavier guard Malcolm Bernard (11) walks off the court after a win over Arizona during an NCAA Tournament college basketball regional semifinal game on Thursday. (Marcio Jose Sanchez / AP)
Xavier guard Malcolm Bernard (11) walks off the court after a win over Arizona during an NCAA Tournament college basketball regional semifinal game on Thursday. (Marcio Jose Sanchez / AP)

SAN JOSE, Calif. – As far as we know, the Pope does not fill out a March Madness bracket. But either way, you can be sure His Holiness is pleased both Gonzaga and Xavier made it through the Sweet Sistine.

Of course, the NCAA Tournament’s two Jesuit universities, which will meet in the Elite Eight on Saturday, have more in common than simply being Catholic schools, especially when it comes to basketball.

Consider: Gonzaga has 23 20-win seasons in the last 25 years and Xavier has 21. Both figures rank firmly in the top 10 in the sport. Both schools rank among the top five in homecourt winning percentage.

In the last 25 years, the Zags have made the NCAA Tournament 20 times and the Musketeers are right behind them with 19 appearances. They were both midmajor powers until Xavier joined the Big East in 2013.

But more than anything else, both schools are in the position of having prominent basketball teams and no football team. In some ways, it can be harder to sustain a winning basketball program without a football team serving as an economic driver.

But both programs have found that having a student body and alumni base center their athletic expectations around the basketball team leads to an energetic fan base and an experience for the athletes that most schools cannot match.

“At Xavier, homecoming is around a basketball game. Parents weekend is around our midnight madness and so everything is basketball-driven,” Musketeers coach Chris Mack said.

GU point guard Nigel Williams-Goss has seen both sides of it. He began his career at Washington, where football reigns supreme, and is now the star basketball player at a football-less school gunning for its first Final Four.

When asked to compare the experiences, he steered clear of any controversy but extolled the virtues of playing at a school that values hoops.

“Gonzaga is absolutely a basketball school without a football team, and the whole school, the whole community really rallies around our program,” Williams-Goss said. “It’s a special place to be because of that support.”

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