- Eamonn Brennan, College Basketball Reporter
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The best thing about the college basketball offseason is that it ends. The second best thing about the college basketball offseason is that when it ends, it ends so quickly and so exhaustively that within a few days you have to remind yourself that there was ever an offseason in the first place. By mid-November, it's impossible to imagine life without basketball.
We have the ESPN Tip-Off Marathon to thank for that. Hey, it might still be warm outside and the campus dorms are mostly empty here in the dog days of August. But exactly three months from now, college hoops will be back in full force with the Marathon, which will include more than a dozen games in more than 24 consecutive hours of basketball in what has become a great annual excuse to call into work sick.
At 7 p.m. ET on Nov. 11, the Marathon begins with an ESPN2 women's doubleheader (Stanford-UConn; then Tennessee-North Carolina) and an ESPNU men's doubleheader (Kent State-Temple; then Colorado State-Gonzaga). At 7:30 p.m. ET on Nov. 12, the Marathon ends with a Champions Classic doubleheader that very well might match up four of the nation's top five teams (Kentucky-Michigan State; Kansas-Duke).
In between, starting at 11 p.m. ET on the 11th, there's a run of men's games that will keep the hardcore fans up all night and morning and begging for caffeine by lunchtime. Who will be participating in those games? Well, stick with us here in the Nation blog. We'll be revealing each of the Marathon matchups at the corresponding time they'll be taking place three months from now. Keep this page open and refresh every two hours and you'll get a new game, along with an early analysis of the matchup. Starting with ...
BYU at Stanford, 11 p.m. ET, ESPN2: The Cougars and Cardinal will not only get the Marathon party started late on Nov. 11, they also provide a handy reminder that the earliest parts of the season mean just as much as what happens in February and March. In recent years, the NCAA tournament selection committee has de-emphasized recent results in its selection, instead emphasizing performance in the nonconference as much (or more) than any other single selection criterion. What happens on Nov. 11 matters, in other words, and that's especially true for both BYU and Stanford. The Cougars have quality players in Matt Carlino and Tyler Haws; Stanford is a quality defensive team with solid guard play from Chasson Randle. Neither team looks like a top-25 group, but they do look like they could be in the mix on Selection Sunday. So both will need as many quality nonconference wins as they can get to avoid languishing on the tournament bubble for months at a time. That process will begin immediately.
Western Kentucky at Wichita State, 1 a.m. ET, ESPN2: Just two years ago, Western Kentucky, a proud, historically successful program, appeared to be in deep decline. In January 2012, a 5-10 team lost to six players (true, and long, story), then fired its coach. Since then, Ray Harper has managed to get WKU into the tournament twice, which is as much a testament to his coaching as it is to the wacky power of automatic bids and mid-major conference tournaments. But really, this fixture is about the Wichita State Shockers and their fans, who, in the wake of a surprise Final Four visit, are no doubt eager to showcase the strength of their program and their fan base to a national audience. Charles Koch Arena is always bumping. Imagine what they'll have cooking for a midnight local tip. Oh my.
Akron at Saint Mary’s, 3 a.m. ET, ESPN2: This midnight local tip -- you know, were it not for time zones, this whole Marathon thing would be a lot harder to pull off -- features two of the best mid-major programs of the past decade. You're likely already familiar with Saint Mary's, which has crept up on (and even briefly unseated) Gonzaga in the West Coast Conference in recent years. But Akron coach Keith Dambrot has taken the Zips to the tournament in three of the past five seasons, including as a 12-seed in 2012-13. Recovering from the loss of super-efficient center Zeke Marshall won't be easy (to say nothing of the Alex Abreu ordeal), but Akron has almost everyone else back and is ready to push toward another postseason berth, and then some.
New Mexico State at Hawaii, 5 a.m. ET, ESPN2: There are many, many benefits to being in Hawaii and its time zone is typically not high on that list. But the Warriors' unique geography also makes them a yearly inclusion in the Marathon. At this point, 5 a.m. ET might as well be called the "Hawaii Slot." This year's edition of the Hawaii Slot features one of the more consistently successful and frequently slept-on mid-majors in New Mexico State, where Marvin Menzies has won 50 games over the past two seasons (and has been to back-to-back NCAA tournaments). Expect to hear a lot about Sim Bhullar, who is not your average NMSU player: He's a 7-foot-5 Canadian-born son of Indian parents whose unique background (and sheer size) won him cross-cultural hype from the New York Times before he played a minute of college ball. The good news? Bhullar was good as a freshman, when he shot 62.1 percent from the field and grabbed 12.8 percent of available offensive rebounds. The dude can play, and you can see him do so live -- as long as you can get up early (or stay up that late).
Hartford at Florida Gulf Coast, 7 a.m. ET, ESPN2: There's something immensely fun about the early-morning Marathon entries. The schools involved are typically small enough that the very idea of being included in the event (and on ESPN) is enough to draw a raucous A.M. crowd, especially in the student section. Expect things to go up a notch or two in 2013. The folks at Florida Gulf Coast are riding as high as the sport allows these days. March's "Dunk City"-defined run to the Sweet 16 put the tiny 22-year-old school and its pristine beach dorms in front of every sports fan in the country. Merchandise flew off the shelves; enrollment (almost certainly, given precedent) spiked. It's safe to assume the party will be still be raging come November.
Quinnipiac at La Salle, 9 a.m. ET, ESPN2: Are you sensing a theme? La Salle, like Florida Gulf Coast and Wichita State above, are likewise coming off one of the best seasons in program history. The 1954 NCAA champs saw the last vestiges of ongoing relevance dry up by the mid-1990s, but their return to the tournament in 2013 -- which required a stopover at the "first round" in Dayton -- took them all the way to the Sweet 16 before they fell to Wichita State. The Explorers lose senior leader Ramon Galloway, but everyone else is back, including a great group of guards led by Tyrone "Southwest Philly Floater" Garland, who is entertaining and frustrating in equally perfect measure.
LSU at Massachusetts, 11 a.m. ET, ESPN2: Typically, LSU fans devote more time to the mechanics of Les Miles' grass-chew habit than they do basketball, and in recent seasons it's been hard to argue with that order of priorities. The Tigers simply have not been very good. That may be changing. Johnny Jones' team returns four starters from a better-than-you-remember 19-12, 2012-13 group. But the biggest piece of news is the arrival of Jarrell Martin, the No. 11-ranked overall player in a stacked incoming recruiting class. The Baton Rouge native took to basketball later than most, but he's already developed into an imposing (if somewhat raw) presence. If his development curve continues to do its best hockey stick impression throughout the rest of the summer, look out for the Tigers. Oh, and don't sleep on UMass -- one of the most stylistically entertaining teams in the country, with a solid returning core -- either. This could be one of those games that looks huge once bubble talk ramps up.
West Virginia at Virginia Tech, 1 p.m. ET, ESPN: Virginia Tech got off to a great start last season, its first under new coach James Johnson. But by the end of the year, about the only thing the Hokies had going for them was senior guard Erick Green, who managed to post a 120.0 offensive rating on 31.7 percent usage, which ranked him behind only Nate Wolters, Kelly Olynyk, Doug McDermott and Trey Burke on the list of players who managed to be efficient despite using so many of their team's possessions. Green was great, but now he's gone, which leaves Johnson facing a classic, long-haul rebuilding scenario. West Virginia isn't quite there, but Bob Huggins' team had a decidedly un-Huggins season in 2012-13, when they played some of the ugliest, most disjointed offense the college game had to offer (which, last season, was saying something). After essentially sending talented, but troubled, forward Aaric Murray away, Huggins will have to cull some semblance of a rotation from a smattering of pieces that never congealed last year. Incoming four-star power forwards Devin Williams and Elijah Mason should help.
South Carolina at Baylor, 3 p.m. ET, ESPN: Despite taking a massive L.J. Peak-induced recruiting gut-punch this summer, Frank Martin's Gamecocks have already made more progress in his one year at the school than in the 10 before it. Martin has a six-player class arriving this fall, led by No. 7-ranked shooting guard Sindarius Thornwell. A few years down the road, the talent level in Columbia is going to be unrecognizably high. Baylor fans could lend some experience on this front. Now entering his 11th season, Scott Drew has taken the Bears from the untouchable site of shocking scandal into one of the most consistently talented programs in the country. This season, the Bears are adding two top-100 talents (Ishmail Wainright, Allerik Freeman) to a group that already includes 7-footer Isaiah Austin and a score of rising youngsters and/or reliable veterans, including forwards Cory Jefferson and Rico Gathers and guards Brady Heslip and Gary Franklin -- the list goes on and on. After an NIT title in March, Baylor should be after much more this season.
NC State at Cincinnati, 5 p.m. ET, ESPN: When everything was clicking, there were few sights in the college game as thrilling as NC State's offense last season -- Lorenzo Brown leading the break, T.J. Warren running to the block, Scott Wood spotting up on the wing. The problem, of course, was defense, or more precisely a lack of defense. Some of that had to do with personnel, but much of it was related to attitude. With Wood, Brown, guard Rodney Purvis (transfer to UConn) and forwards C.J. Leslie and Richard Howell all gone, coach Mark Gottfried won't have as much tantalizing talent on the court this time around. But he will have a pared-down group that actually wants to be in Raleigh, and he can build the additions of top-100 recruits Anthony Barber, BeeJay Anya and Kyle Washington around Warren, the Pack's most dynamic and promising player a season ago. A trip to Cincinnati will be a crucial early test of Gottfried's mini-rebuild, as a Sean Kilpatrick-led Bearcats group hopes the addition of power forward Jermaine Lawrence will push the program past the "solid NCAA tournament inclusion" hump into ever more rarefied air.
"College GameDay" from Chicago, 7 p.m. ET, ESPN: I don't need to preview College Gameday for you, do I? You already know how awesome College Gameday is. Let's move on.
VCU at Virginia, 7 p.m. ET, ESPN2: It's almost unfair to pit the ESPN2 primetime games against the Champions Classic. They're bound to look pale by comparison. But on any other night of the season, VCU-Virginia (and its 9 p.m. ET follow-up, about which more below) would be must-see stuff. The basketball is good in and of itself. Under Shaka Smart, Virginia Commonwealth has morphed 2011's shock Final Four run into a burgeoning outfit that plays one of the most recognizable systems -- a constantly turnover-hawking pressing style -- in the country. UVa, meanwhile, has steadily improved under fifth-year coach Tony Bennett, who has adopted many of the pack-line defensive principles that his father Dick Bennett developed long ago at Wisconsin-Green Bay. The contrast of speed and style couldn't be more pronounced here, and if a hearty quasi-cultural, in-state rivalry doesn't exist between these two very different schools already, it shouldn't take long.
Michigan State vs. Kentucky in Chicago, 7:30 p.m. ET, ESPN: And so we arrive at the jewel of the ESPN Tip-Off Marathon: The Champions Classic. In its first two years, the Champions Classic has done exactly what it set out to do -- provide mutually beneficial marquee college hoops scheduling at the start of the season -- and then some. It even offered an early national title preview (Kentucky vs. Kansas) in 2011-12.
This year's edition might be the best yet, and that starts with Michigan State-Kentucky. The Spartans are the prohibitive Big Ten favorite (or co-favorite with Michigan, your mileage may vary), and bring back about as solid and imposing a core -- senior guard Keith Appling, still-improving senior forward Adreian Payne, Big Ten freshman of the year Gary Harris -- and will begin the season in the top 5 because of it.
After the 2012 national title, Kentucky coach John Calipari probably didn't expect to be on the losing side of a first-round NIT game a year later (and in his hometown, no less), but even as Robert Morris fans stormed the court in March, Calipari could take solace knowing he assembled what is by all accounts the best recruiting class since the Fab Five, and maybe ever. With Julius Randle, Andrew and Aaron Harrison, Dakari Johnson, James Young and Marcus Lee, Calipari landed five of the top nine players in the class and six of the top 25. Oh, and he'll have Alex Poythress and Willie Cauley-Stein -- clearly talented players who struggled as freshmen, but should be more effective with more experience and more minimized roles -- back, too. The whole prospect is terrifying: For as good as UK was in 2011-12, this team might be better. What better early test than a veteran, Tom Izzo-coached Michigan State?
Florida at Wisconsin, 9 p.m. ET, ESPN2: See? This is another really good college basketball game that most people probably won't watch live, because you're not going to miss the beginning of what I have already imagined will be a Bird-Magic-esque Wiggins-Parker rivalry in Duke-Kansas. But the doubleheader on ESPN2 isn't too far behind. No coach in the country is as consistent as Bo Ryan, and this year very little should change. The only exception is the star power offered by sophomore forward Sam Dekker, a rare top-20 recruit for the Badgers who shined in an introductory role as a freshman, and will be asked to do loads more as a sophomore. Speaking of consistency, Florida has participated in the last three Elite Eights, and the Gators appear to be as capable of that feat as ever in 2013-14. No. 2-ranked freshman point guard Kasey Hill should start and star immediately alongside forward Patric Young, and if the Gators can get equally touted freshman power forward Chris Walker academically eligible, they'll have plenty of firepower to bring to the Kohl Center.
Kansas vs. Duke, 10 p.m. ET, ESPN: Yes, UK-MSU is awfully good, and the teams are probably better overall. But for sheer intrigue, it's hard to top Duke versus Kansas. On one side is the No. 1 player in the class, Andrew Wiggins, who is not merely your average top-ranked recruit but considered by pretty much every scout you talk to as the best prospect since Greg Oden and Kevin Durant, if not LeBron James. Which is funny, considering that's the same thing Sports Illustrated once plastered on its cover next to a photo of four-time Illinois state champion, No. 2-ranked Jabari Parker. There is already a bit of a LeBron James-Carmelo Anthony thing going on here. Wiggins is the world-destroying athletic freak with the intuitive all-court game; Parker is the smooth, natural scorer. In 2003, Anthony and James entered their rookie seasons having only ever met on the AAU circuit. In 2013, Parker and Wiggins will meet each other on one of the first nights of the season, following Kentucky's Julius Randle, who is good enough to steal the eventual No. 1 overall pick out from under both.
In other words, the three reasons why you'll hear so much about NBA teams tanking in the next 12 months are all playing on the same United Center night in mid-November, and two of them are playing each other. Man, the Champions Classic is awesome. Did I mention that already? We covered that part, right?
So get your remote control handy; get your DVR game tight. That's good advice for the primetime doubleheader, but it works for the whole Marathon, too. By the time it's over, you won't even remember the offseason existed. I can't wait.
The best thing about the college basketball offseason is that it ends. The second best thing about the college basketball offseason is that when it ends, it ends so quickly and so exhaustively that within a few days you have to remind yourself that there was ever an offseason in the first place.