Dribble handoff: What was the best game from college basketball’s 2021-22 regular season?

After playing the 2020-21 season amid the throes of the COVID-19 pandemic, the 2021-22 college basketball season brought a return to normalcy for the sport. While this past season still featured occasional disruptions due to the virus, particularly in the season’s first half, it was a far smoother ride. Additionally, with no clear dominant team, the regular season showcased the sport’s parity and made outcomes difficult to predict on a night-to-night basis.

With fans filling arenas to the brim once again, great matchups were made whole by raucous crowds unleashing pent-up fandom that had been restrained due to the restrictions of the pandemic. Court stormings became common again after upsets, and there were plenty of moments and outcomes that reminded us just how legitimate home-court advantage is in college basketball.

So, what was the best game of the regular season? We’ll cover the postseason next week, but for this edition of the dribble handoff, our writers — using whatever criteria they want to justify their choice — are picking which regular-season college basketball game from the 2021-22 season was the best.

Kansas vs. michigan state

It clearly wasn’t the best game of the regular season considering Kansas led by as many as 16 points and more or less cruised to an 87-74 season-opening victory over Michigan State. However, it was one of the season’s most notable games because it was the first sign that Ochai Agbaji had withdrawn from the 2021 NBA Draft and returned to KU a different player — one capable of leading the Jayhawks to a national championship. The 6-foot-5 wing took 17 shots, made nine of them and finished with a career-high 29 points. After the game, Agbaji said, “[I came back] for this — [to] be on this stage, be in this moment, lead my team to a win. I know my team has the utmost confidence in me. That’s why I chose to come back and do something with this season.”

Boy, did he ever do something with this season.

Agbaji went on to become a Big 12 regular-season champion, a Big 12 Tournament champion, the Big 12 Player of the Year, a consensus First-Team All-American, a national champion and the Most Outstanding Player of the Final Four. It’s one of the greatest individual seasons in Kansas history, one that was foreshadowed on opening night in the Champions Classic at Madison Square Garden. –Gary Parrish

Duke vs. Gonzaga

Looking back at the regular season, there are at least 10 games under consideration here. I almost went with Purdue’s win over Illinois on Martin Luther King Jr. Day. That was fabulous. I have to go out to the desert for No. 1 Gonzaga going up against No. 5 Duke in Las Vegas, though. Neither team had taken a loss to that point. Future top-five picks Chet Holmgren and Paolo Banchero were squaring off the Friday after Thanksgiving. With scouts galore, it was a college hoops marquee matchup that led into a football-dominated weekend.

The game was so anticipated, then so good, it pulled the highest-rated cable number for a college basketball game in November or December in years — despite not tipping off until around 10:30 pm ET. Duke won 84-81 in a game that featured nine lead changes and six ties. Banchero was good (21 points, five rebounds), Holmgren was solid (16 points, seven rebounds, three blocks) and Drew Timme was good but not great (17 points, 10 boards, five turnovers). This was the Mark Williams breakout game; Duke’s sophomore center went for 17 points, nine rebounds and six blocks.

Remember, Gonzaga was coming off that one-loss season. Its lone defeat was a convincing one in the title game to Baylor. But GU was still preseason No. 1. How long could it go in 2021-22 before losing? Not even to December. Duke, in its final season under Mike Krzyzewski, was considered a title contender, but it was this win that validated that suspicion. These are the kind of nonconference matchups that make college basketball worth investing in for the first weeks of the season. The game was great. The only thing better for these two programs would be something they haven’t been able to agree to for two decades: a home-and-home. Now that Jon Scheyer is in control of the schedule, let’s get it on the books. –Matt Norlander

Villanova vs. UConn

This game had everything we love about college basketball. Dan Hurley got tossed on, shall we say, a questionable-at-best quick double-technical from an official after he hyped up the crowd following his first technical. It had a late go-ahead bucket from RJ Cole to lift UConn past Nova, its first win over the Wildcats since 2014. And, of course, the atmosphere inside the XL Center itself — Matt Norlander can attest to this since he was in the building — looked like an all-timer as the Huskies fanbase started to buy in to what their team was accomplishing into mid-February.

It felt like an announcement on the big stage that UConn was officially back as a force in the Big East. And how could it not feel that way? UConn slayed the giant that has been Villanova in a game that had 18 lead changes and nine ties throughout, notching its first win over an AP top-10 team since 2014 and ending a five-game losing streak to Nova in the process. And it did so in dramatic fashion with Cole’s late go-ahead basket injecting pure pandemonium into the XL Center to top off an incredible college basketball game. –Kyle Boone

Texas vs. Texas Tech

There was no buzzer-beater, no record-setting individual performance and it wasn’t a particularly close game. But the scene in Lubbock, Texas, when Chris Beard made his return to Texas Tech’s United Supermarkets Arena after leaving the Red Raiders to coach Texas was unbelievable. Even through the TV screen, the intense passion of the Texas Tech fans came through, and it carried on for the entire 40 minutes as the Red Raiders pulled out a 77-64 victory over Beard’s Longhorns.

After a sanitized 2020-21 season in college basketball with limited or no attendance in most venues, the scene at Texas Tech on Feb. 1 marked a fever pitch in college basketball’s return. Thankfully, the animosity toward Beard never turned violent, which made the whole scene the rowdiest possible embodiment of the things that make college basketball rivalries great. The other games on this list were better actual games. But you’d be hard-pressed to find a better environment than what was on display in Lubbock when Texas Tech hosted Texas. –David Cobb

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