College basketball is almost back, and it feels great

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RICHMOND – College basketball returned on Tuesday, almost all the way, after a season of empty yards, ongoing cancellations, the NCAA Championship for one city and protocols that ebbed and flowed — mostly flowing — from November to April.

The pandemic isn’t over – ask Aaron Rodgers or Cal Football Club, among others – but it looks as if there is finally light at the end of the tunnel.

There is noise in the squares.

For me, the first chilly moment of the new season came when VCU’s adorable Peppas played the National Anthem on Tuesday night — lightly, as they’re meant to be played — and I was reminded that no famous bands could be seen or heard last winter. Oh boy, did you miss them?

Then VCU and St. Peter played a hot TV opera for a game. Peacock recovered 17 first-half points to take a last-minute lead before Hasson Ward of the Rams saved his team with a stunning dip from behind his shoulder, allowing VCU to escape, 57-54. This was the Rams’ first game since they were eliminated from the NCAA Championship due to positive tests.

The heat and intensity in the building reminded me of another night in November years ago when North Carolina State and North Carolina State played at crowded Greensboro Coliseum the old Big Four. With a last-minute equalizer and Dean Smith drawing one last play for the Tar Heels, Hall of Fame referee Hank Nichols walked near the press table, sweating, and said, “I feel like March.”

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The best news on Tuesday was that it didn’t feel anything like last March. Two years ago, just days before the appointed Sunday — the college basketball version of Christmas — the world stopped working.

Comparing the lack of basketball to the suffering caused by the pandemic – which continues to this day – is ironic. But there was a clear hole in the hearts of those looking forward to March Madness, who found themselves watching replays of previous games or, in many cases, nothing at all.

Not to mention the players, who worked all season to earn post-season performances and found themselves with no games to prepare for and no tournament to play. There was no madness in 2020, only heartbreak.

“Our focus now should be on the players,” Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said on the day it all stopped. “The coaches get a lot of chances, and so do the fans, the TV workers and the media. The players don’t. From a basketball perspective, not in terms of life, this is the worst for them.”

Krzyzewski, who turns 75 in February, kicked off his 42nd and final season at Duke on Tuesday with a 79-71 victory over Kentucky in front of a raucous Madison Square Garden crowd of 18,132 in Game Two of the annual Corporate and Television Glory Festival. This also included Kansas’ victory over Michigan State. All four of these schools’ coaches — Krzyzewski, John Calipari of Kentucky, Bill Self of Kansas and Tom Izzo of Michigan State — are in the Hall of Fame. Krzyzewski won five national titles, the other three each.

But the game of the night wasn’t in New York. It was in Charlottesville, where the Navy entered the John Paul Jones Arena and stunned the 25th-seeded Virginia, leading most of the way to a 66-58 win. This was the Meds’ first victory over a ranked team since David Robinson led the Navy to victory in Syracuse in the second round of the 1986 NCAA Championship.

In many ways, Tuesday’s victory was even more shocking. Yes, Virginia lost some key players from the ACC Championship Team last regular season. But Tony Bennett has reached the point where he is no longer rebuilding. Reloads. His base is Kihei Clark, who was a starting guard and a key player on the 2019 Virginia National Championship team. The Cavaliers, like most big teams, also have experienced transfers.

The Mids has four starting players from a team that went 15-3 a year ago but not lead scorer Cam Davis, who graduated. remittances? The academies do not have transfers. They lose them sometimes, but they can’t just plunge into the teleportation portal to replace them.

Virginia would be a good team. Bennett is one of the best coaches in the country, and as his new players discover the line of defense, they will only improve. That’s what the Bennett teams do.

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But for the Navy kids, Tuesday was a night forever — a night they’d be talking about at a reunion years from now, in the same way the ’86 Elite Eight still talk about beating Syracuse at the Carrier Dome.

However, Tuesday was not about the unrest that broke out or the expected explosions that occurred at guaranteed games across the country. It was about Joy returning to the sport.

Other sports started bringing fans back months ago, but in April Final Four was played at 70,000 seats at Lucas Oil Stadium with about 8,000 masked fans roaming the cavernous building. There weren’t enough people vaccinated back then to open things up.

Now, even as some naysayers refuse to get their shots, enough people are being vaccinated to allow fans – and spirited teams – to return. Everyone inside the Siegel Center looked masked on Tuesday, and the crowd of 7,017 had at least 620 selling. This means that the VCU’s 10-year streak of 166 consecutive sales has ended. However, this is a good turnout for a 6pm start on Tuesday with masks required and some still justifiably nervous about being in the crowds.

Almost everyone agrees that playing last season was a good thing. But players and coaches often described the feeling in the buildings as “surreal” or “weird”. I felt wrong when I heard the sound of the ball off the field or the coaches talking in their gatherings. The same is the case with the lack of handshakes and hugs.

But you can’t feel the same way. No sport, college, or pro, it’s more about the atmosphere than college basketball, whether at Allen Fieldhouse in Kansas, Duke Cameron Indoor Stadium, Sujka Pavilion in Bucknell, or Howard Burr Gymnasium.

It’s all about the noise, the bands, and the people who like to be in the exact spot where they’re sitting – or, oftentimes – in that moment.

The best historic building in college basketball is the Palestra Building located on the campus of the University of Pennsylvania in West Philadelphia. There was no basketball at all last season, because the Ivy League was the only Division I Conference to not play at all.

Basketball will be played in Palistra on Tuesday when Lafayette travels across the Blue Road to face Penn. You can bet I’ll be there, and you can be sure I’ll stop again to read the plaque on the lobby that says, “Winning the game is great . . . to play the game is greater . . . but to love the game is the greatest.”

On Tuesday, we all got that love back. I felt amazing.