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College basketball is actually back — with pep bands, fans, upsets and chills

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 11/10/2021 John Feinstein
Daniel Deaver and Navy shocked Virginia Tuesday night, and there were plenty of fans there to see it. (Ryan M. Kelly/Getty Images) Daniel Deaver and Navy shocked Virginia Tuesday night, and there were plenty of fans there to see it. (Ryan M. Kelly/Getty Images)

RICHMOND — College basketball came back Tuesday, almost all the way back, after a season of empty arenas, constant cancellations, a one-city NCAA tournament and protocols that ebbed and flowed — mostly flowed — from November to April.

The pandemic isn’t over — ask Aaron Rodgers or the Cal football team, among others — but it feels as if there is at last light at the end of the tunnel.

And there is noise in the arenas.

For me, the first chill moment of the new season came when VCU’s superb band, the Peppas, played the national anthem Tuesday night — briskly, as it is supposed to be played — and I was reminded that there were no pep bands to be seen or heard last winter. Boy, did I miss them.

Then VCU and St. Peter’s played a white-hot, down-to-the-last-second soap opera of a game. The Peacocks rallied from down 17 points in the first half to lead going into the final minute before the Rams’ Hason Ward saved his team with a spectacular, banked putback from behind his shoulder, allowing VCU to escape, 57-54. It was the Rams’ first game since they were knocked out of the NCAA tournament because of positive tests.

The heat and the intensity in the building reminded me of another November night years ago when North Carolina and North Carolina State played in a packed Greensboro Coliseum in the old Big Four tournament. With the score tied in the final minute and Dean Smith drawing up a final play for the Tar Heels, Hall of Fame referee Hank Nichols walked near the press table, pouring sweat, and said, “Feels like March.”

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The best news Tuesday was that it felt nothing like the past two Marchs. Two years ago, just days before Selection Sunday — college basketball’s version of Christmas — the world shut down.

To compare not playing basketball games to the suffering caused by the pandemic — which continues today — is ludicrous. But there was a definite hole in the hearts of those who look forward to March Madness, who found themselves watching replays of past games or, in many cases, nothing at all.

Maryland students cheer during the Terps' season opening win. (Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post) Maryland students cheer during the Terps' season opening win. (Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post)

That’s not to mention the players, who worked all season to earn postseason bids and found themselves with no games to prepare for and no tournament to play. There was no madness in 2020, only heartbreak.

“Our focus right now needs to be on the players,” Duke Coach Mike Krzyzewski said on the day everything shut down. “Coaches get plenty of chances, and so do fans and TV people and the media. The players don’t. In basketball terms, not life terms, this is worst for them.”

Krzyzewski, who turns 75 in February, began his 42nd and final season at Duke on Tuesday with a 79-71 win over Kentucky in front of a roaring Madison Square Garden crowd of 18,132 in the second game of the annual corporate and television glory-fest that also included Kansas beating Michigan State. All four of those schools’ coaches — Krzyzewski, Kentucky’s John Calipari, Kansas’s Bill Self and Michigan State’s Tom Izzo — are in the Hall of Fame. Krzyzewski has won five national titles, the other three one apiece.

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

In many ways, Tuesday’s victory was more shocking. Yes, Virginia lost some key players from last season’s ACC regular season championship team. But Tony Bennett has reached the stage at which he no longer rebuilds; he reloads. His point guard is senior Kihei Clark, who was a starting freshman point guard and a key player on Virginia’s 2019 national championship team. The Cavaliers, like most big-time teams, also have a couple of experienced transfers.

The Mids have four starters back from a team that went 15-3 a year ago but not leading scorer Cam Davis, who graduated. Transfers? The academies don’t have transfers. They lose them on occasion, but they can’t just dip into the transfer portal to replace them.

Virginia will be a good team. Bennett is one of the best coaches in the country, and as his new players figure out the pack-line defense, they only will get better. That’s what Bennett teams do.

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But for the Navy kids, Tuesday was a forever night — one they will talk about at reunions years from now, the same way that ’86 Elite Eight team still talks about beating up on Syracuse in the Carrier Dome.

Tuesday though, really wasn’t about the upsets that bubbled up or the predictable blowouts that took place in guarantee games around the country. It was about joy returning to the sport.

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

Now, even with some holdouts refusing to get their shots, enough people are vaccinated to let the fans — and the pep bands — come back. Everyone inside Siegel Center appeared to be masked Tuesday, and the crowd of 7,017 was 620 short of a sellout. That meant VCU’s 10-year-streak of 166 straight sellouts ended. Still, that’s a pretty good turnout for a 6 p.m. start on a Tuesday with masks required and some still justifiably nervous about being in crowds.

Nearly everyone agrees that playing last season was a good thing. But the feeling in the buildings was most often described by players and coaches as “surreal” or “eerie.” Hearing the ball echoing off the court or coaches talking in their huddles felt wrong. So did the lack of handshakes and hugs.

It was a season to remember for national champion Baylor, and Gonzaga’s undefeated run to the national title game shouldn’t be forgotten. Nor should the classic semifinal between Gonzaga and UCLA.

But it couldn’t possibly feel the same. No sport, college or pro, is more about atmosphere than college basketball, whether in Kansas’s Allen Fieldhouse or Duke’s Cameron Indoor Stadium, Bucknell’s Sojka Pavilion or Howard’s Burr Gymnasium.

All are about noise and bands and people loving being in the exact spot where they are sitting — or, more often standing — at that moment.

The best and most historic building in college basketball is the Palestra, on Penn’s campus in west Philadelphia. There was no basketball at all there last season, because the Ivy League was the only Division I conference that didn’t play at all.

Basketball will be played in the Palestra on Tuesday when Lafayette travels down the Blue Route to take on Penn. You can bet I’ll be there, and you can be just as sure I will pause again to read the plaque on the concourse that says: “To win the game is great . . . To play the game is greater . . . But to love the game is the greatest of all.”

On Tuesday, we all got that love back. It felt fantastic.

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