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Tuesday, October 4, 2011
Can't wait for the Champions Classic


Tickets go on sale this week for the Champions Classic and it likely won't take long to sell out November's mega-event at Madison Square Garden.

The Carrier Classic on 11-11-11, with top-ranked North Carolina playing Michigan State on the USS Carl Vinson off the coast of San Diego, is garnering much of the early excitement -- and deservedly so.

But the blue-blooded show four days later in the Big Apple, featuring Duke-Michigan State and Kansas-Kentucky, is littered with possibilities.

College coaches have tended to shy away from opening with a bang, but the sport has been starved for something of this nature. And once it was broached, none of the schools balked for a second. It almost makes you wonder why it took so long.

The doubleheader on Nov. 15 will be the headline event for ESPN's Tipoff Marathon, which starts at midnight with the Washington State-Gonzaga game.

The key to the Champions Classic is that the four schools (and of course coaches) bought into a three-year deal. Atlanta's Georgia Dome -- site of the 2013 Final Four -- will host the second year, with Duke-Kentucky and Michigan State-Kansas. The third installment will be at Chicago's United Center, with Kentucky-Michigan State and Duke-Kansas.

Getting the four schools to commit to this event for a three-year period was critical, especially with the movement toward an 18-game schedule in the ACC once Pitt and Syracuse join and now likely the same thing occurring with an 18-game schedule in the SEC with the addition of Texas A&M in 2012-13. The Big 12 is playing an 18-game, true round robin schedule this season with 10 teams and may stick with that slate if it adds another team or teams to replace the Aggies.

"The hard thing for a team like ours, with us going to 18 games, is that it eliminates two nonconference games," Kentucky coach John Calipari said. "The schedule becomes very top heavy."

UK has commitments with Louisville, North Carolina and Indiana built into the schedule, along with the SEC/Big East Challenge. Add in Kansas this season and the Wildcats have a big-time slate that leaves little room for fluff. Kentucky also will rotate in an exempt event, like the other three schools will do every season. This particular season, the Wildcats are playing rebuilding Penn State then either Old Dominion or South Florida in the Hall of Fame event at the Mohegan Sun in Connecticut. Duke and Kansas are in the loaded Maui Invitational, while Michigan State has plenty on its plate with North Carolina and Duke back to back to open the season.

"Everyone wants to see good games," Calipari said. "Playing Kansas with its veteran players will be a very hard game. And then playing Duke and then Michigan State in this in the next two years will be hard games to start the season."

North Carolina would have been a natural in the Champions Classic, but there could only be one ACC team, and once Duke was on board there was no room for another. UNC is playing Kentucky and Michigan State this season, too.

With these four traditional powers in the house, there's no question the scene at MSG should be equal to a Big East tournament setting. Having these four programs tip off the season was the right call, at the opportune time when the sport was craving early-season headlines. The Carrier Classic will get the season started on Veterans Day, and the Champions Classic should continue the roaring start four days later. And if the NBA remains locked out, the buzz for the sport will only get louder.

This is how college basketball should begin. Thank goodness it's finally reality.