College Basketball, Re-born

College basketball makes its return to our lives tonight. That’s something we get to say every year, including last season, but this year feels different.

COVID-19 protocols will still have an impact on the 2021-22 season, but not nearly in the same way that they did on the prior year. In many ways, we’re about to see college basketball, as we remember it and love it, for the first time since the day the lights dimmed on the 2020 conference tournaments.

Last year, every team’s schedule was tweaked, or constantly in flux. Conferences scrambled to give teams a fair shake. Coaches arranged games in a matter of days, rather than the typical years needed to tee up a marquee match-up.

Fans watched from home. Arenas felt dead without students and alumni and fans there to scream and cheer. Some of last year’s games would have felt utterly different with a full gym of fans, unmasked and going wild. Michigan’s 33-point drubbing of Wisconsin in January might have been even worse with the Maize Rage in the building to spur on the 51-12 run by the Wolverines.

This year is going to feel different. The juice will be back. In theory, we’re about to start the first quote-unquote “normal” season of college basketball since November of 2018, which feels like eons ago. We’ve all come a long way since then. I’m very curious how fans, players, coaches, and the media are going to handle re-capturing the soul of this sport that we all know and love so much.

I’m not even sure how I’m going to handle this season. As a fan or as a writer.

Just six weeks ago, Mrs. Palestra Back and I welcomed a child, The Palestra Baby, into our lives. She’ll be wearing the onesies available in the Palestra Back store as soon as she can fit into one.

I don’t know what the perspective of parenthood will mean for me as a sports fan or what the time commitment of child care will do to my blogging output. I’ve already found myself far less sucked in by sports. Blissfully missing chunks of games involving my beloved Philadelphia Eagles to tend to the little one. Once, not long ago, it felt like the outcome of a Sunday Night Football game between two future playoff teams was something I simply needed to see. That went away pretty quickly.

That likely won’t be the case when Duke-Carolina comes on. My love of college basketball runs deeper. But I don’t know what it will mean for a random Texas Tech-Oklahoma game that I would have gleefully watched after midnight in previous seasons. On the other hand, I’ll have a DVR and find myself wide awake at 3 a.m. plenty of nights.

In terms of my writing output, I’m not sure how fatherhood will affect things. I work 40 hours a week at a full-time job that is not basketball related. I also write for other outlets, with my work at ESPN in March continuing and my role at Action Network continuing to grow. (Follow me on Twitter to see the latest pieces I’m writing.)

In this space, I’m not sure you’ll see as much tape grinding, gif-creating, or goofing-off as regular readers might be used to seeing. Remember two years ago when I tried to write about every single one of college basketball’s 353 teams (now up to 358, by the way)? Can confidently say that a project like that here at Palestra Back is a thing of the past. You will, however, still see my big picture college basketball thoughts and NBA Draft takes. The Fantasy Shootout and All-Handsome Team will show up in March. If something happens in a game that keeps me awake at night, when I should be catching up on much needed baby-deprived sleep, you’ll see something written about that topic here.

Maybe the biggest change will come to the mindset I bring to college basketball. Perhaps I won’t be so cynical about everything. Well, except for Coach K’s goodbye retirement tour. That deserves every ounce of hatred it’s going to receive. But otherwise, I know that today, with our sport on the horizon of its much-needed revival, I am not belly-aching about anyone who is overrated in the preseason rankings. I don’t feel the need to have the fight about Gonzaga with people who can’t seem to accept the Zags’ potential greatness. I sure as hell don’t want to think about rule changes or “points of emphasis”.

I’m just ready to watch basketball. As the Ben Simmons drama does its best to ruin the joy of watching my favorite NBA team, I’ve been deprived. I just want to see a big man execute a post move and then do the “That Guy Is Too Small to Guard Me” celebration thing. I want to see Belmont run a perfect backdoor play. I need to see the look in a player’s eye when he’s made five 3-pointers in the first half on the road.

There are so many players I am excited to see back on the court — truly genuinely excited. Hunter Dickinson’s pick-and-roll defense. Kofi Cockburn running the floor for a jam. Drew Timme spinning and twirling. Matthew Mayer doing Matthew Mayer. EJ Liddell. Marcus Sasser. Andre (expletive) Curbelo. What I wouldn’t give to watch Virginia hold an opponent to a 16-point first half.

The good news: it’s all back, starting tonight. It will be different. It will feel new and old at the same time, but it will be back. A smile might not leave my face until April.

********

Shane McNichol is the founder, editor, and senior writer at PalestraBack.com. He has also contributed to ESPN.com, The Action Network, Rush The Court, Larry Brown Sports, RotoBaller, and USA Today Sports Weekly. Follow him on Twitter @OnTheShaneTrain. You can find every post from this blog on Twitter by following @PalestraBack.

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