PITTSBURGH — The fans are back — with no capacity or spacing restrictions.
The teams are back — with worries about being disqualified due to COVID-19 outbreaks no longer at the forefront.
And Sister Jean? She’s back, too.
For the first time in three years, March Madness returns to a sense of normalcy, as the NCAA men’s basketball tournament has regained its familiar, fully-operational springtime rhythm.
“I’m excited that we’ve got fans. I’m excited that as we know the NCAA Tournament, one of the great, great sporting events of all time, it’s somewhat back to normal,” Illinois coach Brad Underwood said.
After the cancellation of the 2020 tournament at the pandemic’s onset and 2021’s pseudo-bubble, where games were played with sparse crowds only at sites in Indiana, the madness spreads out once again at eight first-and-second-round sites across the nation, including here in the Steel City.
“Just really getting here and just seeing all the March Madness signs and logos, that’s really what did it for me,” said Delaware guard Jameer Nelson Jr. “That’s when it really hit me.”
Unfortunately for local hoop fans, for only the second time since 1978 — and the second time in the last four tournaments — the D.C. region is shut out of the madness.
Maryland struggled early in Big Ten play after former coach Mark Turgeon’s December departure and couldn’t string together enough wins late in the season to get in. Georgetown, meanwhile, didn’t win a Big East game all season and lost 21-straight games to finish the year as questions about coach Patrick Ewing’s status continue to swirl. Both programs finished with a non-winning record for the first time since 1968.
The region’s mid-major schools struck out on dancing too: American, Howard, George Mason, and George Washington didn’t qualify, with the Bison the only school among that group to post a winning record (16-13).
The DMV is represented, though, through a number of talented local products playing on the national stage. That includes Villanova shooting guard Justin Moore, who was a state and Washington Catholic Athletic Conference champion at DeMatha, as well as the 2018-19 Maryland Gatorade Player of the Year.
“There’s so many guys from the area that we play against every game all across the country, you see different guys from the D.C. area. I’m blessed to be a part of that,” said Moore, who’s averaging 15 points-per-game for the Big East tournament champion Wildcats.
As fans nationwide tune in to the games and keep tabs on their brackets, busted or otherwise, they’ll see a familiar face that fueled one of the tournament’s best recent feel-good stories — Jean Dolores Schmidt, better known as Sister Jean.
“She’s kind of our whole brand,” Loyola-Chicago guard Braden Norris said.
The 102-year-old nun is back following the Ramblers as they try to make Cinderella’s slipper fit once again. She became known nationwide in 2018 as Loyola-Chicago made an improbable Final Four run as an 11 seed, seated courtside in her maroon-and-gold striped scarf cheering on the Ramblers.
Officially the 10th-seeded Ramblers’ chaplain, she’ll be with the team in Pittsburgh, once again looking to follow them on a deep March run.
“We always kind of joke around when we advance, it’s kind of like Sister Jean advancing to the round of 32,” Norris joked. “She means a ton to our university and to our team, and it’s awesome to have her here.”
The Ramblers have as good a chance as anyone in the field to make a run, as parity reigns going into this tournament more so than in recent seasons. Besides No. 1 overall seed and last year’s runner-up Gonzaga (23.9%), ESPN’s Basketball Power Index has no team with better than an 11% chance to cut down the nets in New Orleans.