College Basketball Nation: College Hoops Tip-Off Marathon

Recapping O'Neil's Marathon road trip

November, 17, 2010

LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- As I walked into the lobby of the Marriott in downtown Louisville on Wednesday night, Butler guard Ronald Nored looked at me and smiled.

“Hey,’’ he said. “Weren’t you just in Carbondale?’’

Good question.

When you cross six state lines in 12 hours -- one more rainy than the next -- it’s kind of hard to remember where you’ve been.

Or where you are. Or what you’re doing.

My mini-marathon of hoops wrapped into ESPN’s gargantuan Tip-Off Marathon was equal parts draining and entertaining.

First the numbers: 446 miles, 23 hours, six states, three games, two tanks of gas, one overtime, a few herd of roadside cows, a collections of hunters enjoying grits at a truck stop and enough rain to refloat Noah’s Ark.

And for the record, it was all my idea (poor Nick Dawson, our director of programming, merely got dragged into it, Thelma to my Louise). And for the record, yes, I’d do it again.

After covering the late-night Miami-Memphis game, we started out at 5 a.m. CT, rolling through the dark from Memphis to Carbondale.

And we finished at 11 p.m. ET, stepping into the dark night of Louisville. (Somewhere along the way our phones magically changed time zones and we truly lost an hour of our lives.)

I learned a little geography along the way -- who knew Arkansas was so close to Memphis? (Yes, I’m that clueless about geography). And I learned that there are places to get a tank of gas and a full buffet breakfast with your hunting buddies at 6 a.m., not to mention a good-natured ribbing from the regulars when an out-of-town girl rolls in and grabs a Big Gulp cup for a coffee.

I also learned what I already knew: College basketball in November is every bit as glorious as college basketball in March.

OK, it’s not as pretty just yet. Fifty-two fouls is about 30 too many and anytime someone wants to host a national clinic on free throw shooting, I’ll sponsor.

There are kinks everywhere in these early days. One Memphis dancer even fell down -- a total splat! in the middle of a routine.

So, yes, it’s a little rough out there in the early days. But there can be beauty in ugly, particularly when it’s sandwiched with Bill Raftery in the beginning and Dick Vitale and the incomparable Dan Shulman in the end.

To me, the first day of the NCAA tournament is my sports Christmas, a day where I can watch four games in an arena and more games on television, a virtual morning-to-night slice of heaven.

This was that with some highway rolled in.

I saw packed arenas in Memphis and Carbondale and a packed Taj Mahal in Louisville.

I saw a breakout star (Joe Jackson at Memphis), a crazy loss (a phantom technical to end the Northeastern-SIU game) and a stunning blowout (Louisville’s de-pantsing of Butler).

I saw older fans who shunned their bedtimes, donned their blue and headed to their seats in FedEx Forum.

And I saw young fans who probably ignored their classes, painted their chests and took their seats in SIU Arena.

No, there wasn’t nearly as much riding on these games as the ones played in March. But try telling that to the people who cheered and the players who played.

There is months of basketball yet to be played, but the urgency and intensity was every bit as strong now as it will be then.

And for a Hoops Head like me, it was heaven.

A demented, twisted, exhausting heaven -- but heaven all the same.

Tip-Off Marathon: Winners and losers

November, 17, 2010
From a Bracketology perspective, here are my winners and losers from the third annual College Hoops Tip-Off Marathon:

WINNER: Ohio State -- Maybe the biggest winner of all. The Buckeyes showed the nation that talk of a possible run to the Final Four is anything but hypothetical. That was some performance in Gainesville.

LOSER: Virginia Tech -- The Hokies ramped up the dreaded nonconference schedule ranking, but couldn't finish at Kansas State. Thankfully, other opportunities await.

WINNER: San Diego State -- The runner-up to Ohio State in the "biggest winner" category. The Aztecs took a chance going to Gonzaga and it paid off in a big way.

LOSER: St. John's -- It'll be a while before we can truly assess Steve Lavin's Red Storm. In the meantime, we know the Johnnies went cross-country to lose at Saint Mary's, are now home for a single game against dangerous Columbia, then jump back on a plane to the Great Alaska Shootout. What about it, Lav?

WINNER: Miami (Fla.) -- The Hurricanes didn't quite get the "W" in the tip-off game at Memphis, but Frank Haith's team clearly showed it can play at an NCAA-tournament level. Miami should be no worse than a bubble team in what should be a mad scramble for bids in the ACC.

LOSER: Colorado -- The Buffaloes had a chance to escape their perpetual Big 12 obscurity at Georgia. Instead, the Bulldogs registered a double-digit victory in their own quest for the NCAA tournament.

WINNER: Louisville -- The Cardinals waxed Butler in a "finger-lickin' good" opening of their brand new KFC Yum! Center. You could almost see this one coming. Almost.

BONUS LOSER: Southern Utah -- Not really part of the Marathon, but Southern Utah gets a mention for all the wrong reasons. The Thunderbirds became the first Division I team this season to lose a game to a non-DI opponent (at home, no less). Cal Baptist did the deed, 79-69.

BONUS WINNER: College of Charleston -- Another non-Marathon entry, the Cougars scared Maryland last week before laying a 16-point drubbing on Big South favorite Coastal Carolina on Tuesday. Bobby Cremins and SoCon Player of the Year Andrew Goudelock are proving to be quite a combo.

By the numbers: Tip-Off Marathon

November, 17, 2010
With the end of the Pacific-UCLA game, the West Coast has closed up shop and the Tip-Off Marathon is now over. After 25-and-a-half hours, here are the final totals for the event:

Games: 21
Time Zones: 4
Total Points: 2,846
Overall FG Pct: 40.8 (840-2,058)
Combined Margin: 250
Distance Traveled on ESPN: 13,269 miles (see below)

College Hoops Tip-Off Marathon: After 25.5 hours
  • A total of 22 games in four time zones (Eastern, Pacific, Central, Hawaiian)
  • First six games were decided by five points or fewer
  • Eight games were within a point during the final minute
  • Home teams went 17-4 (Monmouth, SIU, Florida and Gonzaga lost)

It is 603 miles from Memphis to East Lansing, but ESPN is taking the long way today. Starting with the midnight game in Memphis and making 10 stops along the way, there was 13,269 miles traveled on ESPN today. And that doesn't even include ESPN2 and

Distance traveled on ESPN
Memphis, Tenn., to Moraga, Calif.: 1,788 miles
Moraga, Calif., to Honolulu, Hawaii: 2,413 miles (4,201 total)
Honolulu, Hawaii, to West Long Branch, N.J.: 4,970 miles (9,171 total)
West Long Branch, N.J., to Kent, Ohio: 388 miles (9,559 total)
Kent, Ohio, to Carbondale, Ill.: 481 miles (10,040 total)
Carbondale, Ill., to Tulsa, Okla.: 392 miles (10,432 total)
Tulsa, Okla., to Waco, Texas: 322 miles (10,754 total)
Waco, Texas, to Manhattan, Kan.: 529 miles (11,283 total)
Manhattan, Kan., to Gainesville, Fla.: 1,044 miles (12,327 total)
Gainesville, Fla., to Louisville, Ky.: 623 miles (12,950 total)
Louisville, Ky., to East Lansing, Mich.: 319 miles (13,269 total)

Top Scorers
35 - Steven Gray, Gonzaga
30 - Billy White, San Diego State
30 - Maya Moore, Connecticut (women's)
27 - Scoop Jardine, Syracuse
26 - Jared Sullinger, Ohio State
26 - David Lighty, Ohio State
25 - Shelvin Mack, Butler
25 - Quincy Acy, Baylor

Top Rebounders
22 - Rick Jackson, Syracuse
15 - Tyler Honeycutt, UCLA
14 - Reeves Nelson, UCLA
14 - Sam Willard, Pacific
14 - Mason Plumlee, Duke
14 - Melissa Jones, Baylor (women's)
13 - Ed Waite, Monmouth
12 - Justin Greene, Kent State
12 - Draymond Green, Michigan State
12 - Kawhi Leonard, San Diego State

Video: Brad Stevens on Butler's loss

November, 17, 2010
Butler coach Brad Stevens following his team's 88-73 loss to Louisville:

Video: Rick Pitino on Louisville's big win

November, 16, 2010
Louisville coach Rick Pitino after his team's 88-73 win over Butler:

Already a reassessment of OSU, Florida?

November, 16, 2010
After an 18-point road win against a top-10 team, THE Ohio State may be THE team to beat in the Big Ten. Yes, I know, I have been hyping Illinois the whole preseason. I am not totally jumping ship, but I just never expected Aaron Craft to be so ready to lead or for this team to be so cohesive so soon.

I saw Jared Sullinger in high school several times. Every AAU guy and college coach raved about how he was/is the real deal. Perfect big man, the anti-Renardo Sidney (big man who floats to shoot 3s). The Buckeyes team I saw tonight was a balanced, prepared, well-coached machine -- and one that has everything needed to win the national championship.

Every time Florida pressed it seemed, the Bucks broke it to score and got a layup, a 3-pointer (at times still too quick), or even a put back off the 3. Man, is the Big Ten going to be a war or what? I struggle to find a member of the Illini who can/will be able to handle Sully in the low block. And if you double, they have shooters to make you pay and Dallas Lauderdale to dunk a rebound on the weak side. Wow.

Look, Sully is a beast. And I mean that in a good way. It is the highest compliment you can give to a post. He has soft hands, a great set of moves and he can pass. William Buford, who was very selfish at times last year, played well at the point and David Lighty just looked like the game was in slow motion.

As for Florida, this group doesn’t look all that different than last season. Maybe the Buckeyes exposed the real Gators. There is still no real point guard as Erving Walker leaves his feet in the lane too much. And though Kenny Boynton looked better shooting the ball, did he really make anyone else better? Not really.

Moreover, UF’s big men looked pedestrian at best. There is a distinct lack of effectiveness in their press. So from the lack of size of Boynton and Walker, to the lack of effectiveness of Chandler Parsons or any of their big men -- Erik Murphy still looked young and Patric Young looked like an athletic freak who was lost offensively – Florida’s vulnerability was certainly exposed on Tuesday.

All is not lost for the Gators, but with no point guard, average big men and an inability to make the press effective, I may have overstated their chances of winning the SEC. Yes, they returned five starters, but this is the same team that lost five of their last six games and lost five overall in the O’Dome last season. Billy D and his program may be further from “back” than I would have thought.

Rapid Reaction: Louisville 88, Butler 73

November, 16, 2010
LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- A few quick thoughts following Louisville’s thumping of Butler.
  • I’m not sure if Louisville is this good any more than I’m certain Butler is this bad. Certainly I’m impressed by the Cardinals and mystified by the lackluster Bulldogs, but I’m not cashing in all my chips yet. Remember, Butler looked pretty mediocre in the nonconference season last year -- losing to Minnesota, Clemson, Georgetown and UAB -- and everyone wrote their preseason hype off as baloney. That didn’t last. And Louisville started the season pretty well, rolling to a 10-3 record by the end of December. That didn’t last, either.
  • Matt Howard absolutely has to get over his chronic foul syndrome. Without Gordon Hayward, the Bulldogs don’t have enough offensive weapons and can ill-afford Howard lounging on the bench like he did for much of the first half against the Cards. This isn’t a new problem. He lingered on the sidelines during the Final Four and probably has logged as much time in a cushioned chair as the court in his collegiate career. But the stakes are higher now and Howard has to figure out how to play tough and not play foolish.
  • Gorgui Dieng's eligibility is a big bonus for Louisville. In an offseason littered with bad news and players deemed ineligible, the U of L's appeal victory for Deng was a welcomed change. But it’s more than that. The big man can play. He only had two points against Butler, but he added an active three rebounds and a block and gave Terrence Jennings a breather.
  • If you can get past the ribbon of ads circling the court that look something like a phone book, the KFC Yum! Center is a pretty sweet venue. It’s big, it's open, and most stunning, it’s a 22,000-palace built only for a college basketball team. Louisville is the main tenant, not an NBA team. And trust me, this is an NBA arena. For the arena debut, Louisville welcomed a school-record home crowd of 22,723, a record the Cards are sure to break over and over again.

Sullinger, Buckeyes make a statement

November, 16, 2010

GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Evan Turner had prepared Jared Sullinger for what was to come at Ohio State.

He publicly said at the NBA draft the Buckeyes would have a Big Ten freshman of the year and even possibly a Big Ten player of the year. He didn’t hesitate to say that even without him -- last season’s national player of the year -- the Buckeyes could be a better team.

Privately, according to Sullinger, he was prepping OSU's highly touted forward on how to handle his stardom.

“He helped me manage everything,’’ said Sullinger, who noted he has known Turner for a while, even though he never played with him. “He told me about how to deal with the hype, the local celebrity stuff and to understand who I am and what I have to do to be successful in the game of basketball.’’

Sullinger said Turner’s words were direct: listen to coach Thad Matta.

“He’s been there, he’s coached in a national championship and had a whole bunch of NBA basketball players,’’ Sullinger said.

Turner knows of what he speaks.

The Buckeyes may just be better than a year ago because of Sullinger. And while he isn’t the defensively dominating presence that Greg Oden was in the run to the national title game in 2007, he may be a more reliable post scorer that gives the Buckeyes the necessary balance to compete for a title.

Sullinger was the dominant presence Tuesday in scoring 26 points and grabbing 10 boards in a 93-75 victory over Florida in Gainesville. Sullinger scored 16 of his points in the second half to turn what was a three-point halftime deficit into to a second-half rout.

This was just a snapshot, one game in mid-November, but it was quite clear that Ohio State has someone who can score in the post on a regular basis to offer balance. And it was painfully clear that Florida does not. And that could be a difference as to where these teams finish this spring.

“I’d like to say it’s comforting, but what I like is that our players know it too. They have an understanding that to have the outside game we have to throw it inside and that he’ll throw it back out," Matta said of throwing the ball into the post. "The beauty of his game is his unselfishness. Hopefully we can continue to build on that. We had great ball movement and great spacing.’’

[+] EnlargeJared Sullinger
Kim Klement/US PresswireOhio State's Jared Sullinger was a big boost in the second half of the Buckeyes' win over Florida.
Matta didn’t hesitate when asked about the difference between Sullinger and Oden, who was the top pick in the 2007 NBA draft. Oden wasn’t a polished offensive product. He was an intimidating defender. Sullinger is not.

“I’ve said he’s productive, he produces and he finishes,’’ Matta said. “Look at his field-goal percentage. He was 13-of-17. He shoots like that in practice.’’

Sullinger isn’t a completed project yet, but he has a more fundamentally strong game on the offensive end at this point in his career. The Buckeyes have had bigs like Kosta Koufos and B.J. Mullens since Oden, but neither can even come close to Sullinger’s game at this point or in the future, despite being first-round picks.

And neither can Vernon Macklin, Patric Young, Erik Murphy or Alex Tyus for Florida. They each had their moments, but none was a consistent offensive presence against OSU.

“When you’ve got someone like that it opens up everything, the penetration, the outside shots and that’s what our team likes to do with our guards,’’ said Ohio State fifth-year senior guard David Lighty, who played on the 2007 national runner-up. “We had this at times last year with Dallas [Lauderdale], but it was more on the defensive end. Sully has the skill on the offensive end to open everything up.’’

The Buckeyes have experienced guards around Sullinger with Lighty, Jon Diebler and William Buford, who are all streaky shooters. Having freshman Aaron Craft come off the bench as a gritty point guard who isn’t afraid to take it to the opponent helps the moxie off the bench. Craft is still finding his way and had five assists and three turnovers. But he has plenty of potential to settle down into the role of being a leader.

The Buckeyes were beaten badly on points in the paint (24-14) and on the backboard (19-8) in the first half. It was stunning result since OSU clearly held an advantage in that department. But Matta implored the Bucks at halftime that they had to throw the ball inside and if they did, they would likely get it back in return.

And they did, turning at least the points in the paint figure in their favor (40-36).

The Buckeyes barely got much out of fellow freshman forward Deshaun Thomas (two points in eight minutes), who has loads of potential scoring ability as well. But he wasn’t needed on Tuesday. He will be soon.

There is so much to like with this Ohio State squad because of Sullinger offering up the balance in the post. Having him inside as an equalizer to any other Big Ten team should surely benefit this team in the winter. Ohio State is clearly in the mix with Michigan State, Illinois, Purdue, Wisconsin and Minnesota for the Big Ten title.

But the national championship talk shouldn't be quieted. Michigan State is in that discussion. Now Ohio State must be as well.

Matta said in the locker room prior to the game that he was eager to see how this team would respond in this environment. He said he knew they had a chance to be really good later in the season.

After this one, it's hard not to be giddy about this team’s potential if you’re Matta and the Buckeyes. Florida has to figure out how it can deal with a force inside or when it’s offense is too jumpshot-oriented (like in the second half). The Gators may be questioning just what is their identity now.

Ohio State has its answer. Get the ball to Sullinger and everything else will open up.

Was Virginia Tech exposed at K-State?

November, 16, 2010

While we get all caught up in returning leading scorers, we rarely use the term “star” anymore in college basketball -- and maybe there’s a reason why. Virginia Tech’s star is Malcolm Delaney, who chose not to enter the NBA draft and instead returned to Blacksburg with the hope of leading the Hokies to the Big Dance and before taking his talents to The League.

But Kansas State exposed why Virginia Tech has very little chance of winning the ACC, and frankly, why Delaney is back at school. He is not a point guard who can run a team against legit pressure. He had 10 turnovers against the Cats, seven in the second half.

That is not to say the Hokies cannot beat Duke (they get them at home). But their struggles against the immense pressure of the Wildcats, despite the fact that Jacob Pullen barely played in the first half and Curtis Kelly never suited up, is a sure sign of trouble considering how mightily they struggled to get good shots and run solid offense despite their vast experience on the floor.

Now let’s not put it all on Delaney. He is a great college player and scorer and should still play in the NBA, just not as a starting point. He is hurt by J.T. Thompson's knee injury, which took his second-best option off the floor, and Allen Chaney's heart condition, which took away a 25-minute-a-game low post scorer.

Jeff Allen's intentional foul in the first half on Tuesday seemed to adversely affect the officials, who over officiated and called charge after charge despite the fact that Will Spradling rarely had his feet set. (The charge on Erick Green was an embarrassing mistake by the official.) But again, different year, same Allen -- talented, but prone to the borderline dirty play that gives his team a disadvantage. I know he is smarter and better than that.

As for K-State, its shot selection was way too quick without Pullen, and though Spradling gave them a bounce at times, he took too many quick 3s and is not a good on-ball defender like Martavious Irving or the other guards for KSU. Freddy Asprilla looked better, but is still not the legit low post scorer that we were sold.

But it is early and KSU is still deep, still tough and Rodney McGruder looks improved, as do several other Cats. They should be far more efficient with Kelly, whereas Virginia Tech’s team will be better when not in foul trouble. But the Hokies were supposed to be ahead of the curve at this point in the year, yet their lack of a true point or multiple ball handlers, combined with a lack of depth inside, appears to be fundamental flaw in their makeup. Tech should still dance, but the trip there will be much more bumpy than I had expected.

Some quick thoughts on a few earlier games ...
  • Baylor looked long and huge in the frontcourt, but very average at the point with AJ Walton. LaceDarius Dunn did not play due to suspension, but the Bears will need better point guard play in order to be as good as they were last year. That said, Quincy Acy is a monster on the boards and J'Mison Morgan actually looked in shape.
  • Tulsa crushed Oral Roberts in the second half of the Mayor’s Cup. Jordan Clarkson bounced back from a six-turnover game in TU’s loss to Appalachian State and played terrific, especially in the second half. ORU shot the ball way too quickly and struggled to defend outside and Steven Idlet inside. The Golden Hurrican outscored the Golden Eagles 54-32 in the second half. It looked like ORU was gassed, while Tulsa -- coached by marathoner Doug Wojcik -- looked fresh as a daisy.
  • Southern Illinois pulled a “Webber” and I do not mean Bruce. The verbal timeout can be heard on the broadcast. If looks as if senior John Freeman yelled “Time!” during the tie-up. Though SIU’s shooting was poor from the 3-point line, the team’s 23 turnovers were its ultimate undoing. That said, what a bad way to lose the game as the rest of the Salukis seemed to know they had no timeouts. It was unfortunate.
  • Hey, Hawaii is 3-0 for the first time in six years. Not sure if Gib Arnold’s Warriors are going to keep it up, but 3-0 is not bad considering just how dreadful the team was last season and the fact that they were picked to finish last in the WAC this year. Bill Amis missed last season with a knee injury and his return, along with Zane Johnson being eligible, allowed Hawaii to slow down touted freshman Trey Zeigler, who seems to be as good as advertised, though he forced some things on his way to 24 and 5 rebounds.
  • I know its game against Pepperdine wasn’t technically a part of the Marathon, but UCLA looks huge defensively. The Bruins’ offense is still very much a work in progress, but with Reeves Nelson and Josh Smith inside, along with Tyler Honeycutt's length at the three, UCLA is big, long and tough to score on. They match up against UOP (Pacific to non-West coasters) who runs the old Ralph Miller 1-4 High. Watch for how Bob Thompson’s team handles the low post double teams and hard hedge on the ball screens. The Bruins will eat you up if you are weak with the ball, but there are plenty of weak side shots to be had if a team is properly prepared.

San Diego State a 'curveball' for Gonzaga

November, 16, 2010
A game against San Diego State wasn't necessarily what Gonzaga coach Mark Few signed up for at the CBE Classic.

The team slated to play the Zags at the Kennel in the regional round does not advance to play in the championship round in Kansas City no matter the result, so it was thought that they would get an easy home game.

But with San Diego State having trouble scheduling, Aztecs coach Steve Fisher decided to take his team to Spokane. For that, college basketball fans get a great match-up that pits an established conference power against an up-and-coming one picked to win the Mountain West.

For Few, he didn't originally have this in mind.

"It's really crazy," he said last week. "We got thrown a real curveball when they added San Diego State to the CBE. I don’t think we were expecting that. That really took our schedule and put it over the top.

"When you sign up for one of those situations, you sign up for two guarantee games at home, and you usually move on to play. You're usually not looking to get a top-20 team in here. I think they're all of that and probably a little bit more. They’re probably very far along this time of year. They’re primed to have not a good season, but a great season. They’re certainly capable of winning their conference and advancing very deep in the NCAA tournament. They’re athletic, versatile, and have added shooters."

Still, the game provides an early opportunity for Gonzaga to show the nation where it stands this season. Are the Zags ready to make a Final Four run? If the rack up wins this season with a tough schedule that includes Kansas State, Illinois, Baylor among others, they deserve a high seed in the NCAA tournament.

"Lot of tough, tough games," Few said. "Hopefully during that we’ll sense there’s a great opportunity there to accrue some good wins that will help our résumé in March."

Video: He's alive! Brennan checks in

November, 16, 2010
In his 21st hour of live chatting, Eamonn Brennan is somehow still able to function, despite getting zero sleep. We'll let the man himself explain the secret to his truly insane personal marathon:

First impressions of the Yum! Center

November, 16, 2010
LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- In a word, wow.

Louisville's new basketball home is the most modern facility in America, and maybe the nicest. The only thing it lacks is a palatable name.

The KFC Yum! Center -- exclamation point included! -- is a necessary but perturbing bow to the corporate reality of modern stadium-building. But the annoying moniker is overcome by the physical reality of the place.

Every conceivable bell has been included. And whistle. And they probably made up a few new ones as well.

The 22,000-seat edifice is picturesquely located downtown, right by the Ohio River. It has an NBA look to it on the outside and the inside, where the suites are opulent and plentiful.

For fans and players alike, there is every creature comfort and convenience -- and even for visiting broadcasters as well. Dickie V and Dan Shulman had their own dressing room for tonight's game against Butler.

Several NCAA honchos are in attendance for this curtain-lifting as well, because they know this building has NCAA tournament potential. There will be regionals here in the future, just as there used to be at fabled Freedom Hall.

That old barn was home to six Final Fours back in the day, and to every important Louisville home game for decades. It holds a secure place in college basketball history. But it was time for a change, time to upgrade.

And the upgrade is spectacular.


Video: Family divided for Butler-Louisville

November, 16, 2010
Stephanie, Maureen and Bill Owen discuss their conflicting rooting interest for tonight's Butler-Louisville game:

9:30 p.m. ET: Belmont at No. 23 Tennessee (ESPNU) -- This is where we separate the men from the boys. (And the women from the girls. Or the adults from the children. Or the … well, you get the point.) By now, if you've been with the marathon for this long, you have to finish it out, and though Belmont-Tennessee isn't exactly top-notch viewing, the Volunteers' exhibition loss to Division II foe Indianapolis in the preseason means you can't completely discount the possibility of an upset. In the meantime, the game marks the start of what is no doubt going to be a challenging and quixotic campaign for Bruce Pearl. In many ways, what happens on the court this season doesn't matter; Pearl's coaching fate will be decided when the NCAA finishes its investigation into recruiting violations Pearl committed (then fibbed about, then admitted). But it couldn't hurt to keep the hoops at a high level, either.

10 p.m. ET: South Carolina at No. 2 Michigan State (ESPN/ESPN3) -- Give South Carolina credit for playing anybody anywhere this season. With a trip to the Breslin Center, the Gamecocks have as tough a game as any in the marathon. Darrin Horn's team won't be quite as bad as you might expect given the loss of star guard Devan Downey, but it'll have a major uphill battle in East Lansing. So why should you watch? Well, not only is this the first chance to see one of the few teams most observers believe can unseat Duke at the top of the college pile this season, but it's a chance to peek in on the recovery of Kalin Lucas after the Achilles tear that sidelined the Spartans' star in last season's NCAA tournament run. I'm also excited to see Draymond Green, Sparty's vocal and skilled former sixth man, take on the added responsibilities of a starter's role.

11 p.m. ET: San Diego State at No. 12 Gonzaga (ESPN2/ESPN3) -- Casual hoops fans know Gonzaga, but they might not know San Diego State, and thus might be unaware that this is one of the better games on the entire marathon schedule. But, oh, it is. San Diego State is the Mountain West favorite and a preseason AP Top 25 team, and the Aztecs are led by 6-foot-7 forward Kawhi Leonard, one of the players you might not have heard of but you should. Much is expected of SDSU, but the Aztecs are a program very much in the "prove it" phase, and there are few better opportunities to prove your quasi-mid-major bona fides than winning an early road game at the marquee mid-major program of the past decade-plus.

11:30 p.m. ET: Nevada or Pacific at UCLA (ESPNU) -- And, finally, the marathon will draw to a close. If you make it this far, you're officially out of your mind, and I think we maybe need to be best friends. (I'll still be live-blogging for the 25th straight hour. At that point, I probably will need some friendship.) What about the game itself? Both of these potential UCLA opponents -- they will play Monday night in an NIT Season Tip-Off opening game -- qualify as solid mid-majors, as Nevada is a frequent WAC contender and Pacific is one of the favorites to win the Big West yet again. But more than anything, the game is an early look at how far the Bruins have come -- and how far they need to go -- in the process of rebounding from last year's disastrous 14-win season. Keep an eye out for freshmen Joshua Smith, Tyler Lamb and Matt Carlino, and check in on the frosh-to-soph improvement of sophomore forward tandem Reeves Nelson and Tyler Honeycutt.

Buckeyes, Gators set to tangle at O'Dome

November, 16, 2010

GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Better check the calendar again to make sure it says Tuesday, Nov. 16.

Not that we're complaining, but it does feel odd to have two Final Four contenders playing against each other this early in the season.

The tendency in the past has been for elite teams to shy away from a true home-and-home matchup within the first week of the season. Playing in a pre-arranged ACC-Big Ten Challenge game or an exempted tournament doesn’t count. This matchup between Ohio State and Florida was a true home-and-home series and both coaches should be applauded for scheduling it.

Florida is the SEC favorite and with good reason. The Gators return all five starters and added a stud in freshman forward Patric Young. The Gators did squeak into the NCAA tournament last season and lost to BYU in the first round. But the lack of postseason success (no tourney wins since the back-to-back titles) is a legitimate concern. How this group will handle the expectations is a legitimate issue. Florida coach Billy Donovan is quick to point out that this team hasn’t won anything yet.

Ohio State lost the national player of the year in Evan Turner. For most teams that would be a crushing blow, but not in Columbus. The Bucks return plenty of key players in David Lighty, Jon Diebler, William Buford and Dallas Lauderdale. But once again OSU coach Thad Matta has delivered with impact freshmen. If you want to get a glimpse at the present and future of Buckeye basketball, then make sure to check Jared Sullinger, Deshaun Thomas and Aaron Craft.

If there is one thing that I want to see in this game, it’s how those freshmen handle the atmosphere at the O’Connell Center. Sullinger has the advantage inside over Alex Tyus in terms of talent. But Sullinger doesn’t have the experience of a veteran player. Tyus does. The backcourt battles with Lighty, Buford, Diebler and Craft against the Gators’ Erving Walker and Kenny Boynton will be one of the better ones we’ll see during the course of the marathon. And then there's UF's Chandler Parsons, who will be a little bit of everywhere on the court.

The most interesting player on this night might be Parsons. He has proved that he can make a decisive shot in big games. How he finds freedom against the length of Ohio State will be a challenge.

Look, we’re not going to anoint a national champ out of this game in early November. But if Ohio State can steal a road win at Florida it will speak volumes for the maturity of this team and its chances of challenging in the Big Ten against Michigan State, Illinois, Purdue and possibly Minnesota. Florida needs to hold serve at home to answer the expectations.

These two teams played for the 2007 national title in similar circumstances. Ohio State was led by freshmen in key positions (Greg Oden and Mike Conley Jr., at center and the point). Florida had a veteran roster. If the Buckeyes are to get back again this April it will be because of the complementing freshmen. If the Gators get to Houston it will be because the upperclassmen have answered the leadership void and delivered on their production.