- Eamonn Brennan, ESPN Staff Writer
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Twenty-one games. Twenty-five hours. It's the truest test of college basketball fandom, the Ironman of hoops spectation: the ESPN College Hoops Tip-Off Marathon.
There's so much to watch. Kansas-Kentucky, Duke-Michigan State and Florida-Ohio State offer big-time matchups in the prime-time slots. Northern Iowa-Saint Mary's gives us a little November BracketBusters. Belmont, fresh off its one-point loss at Duke, will try to upset a talented-but-young Memphis team.
There are women's games in the mix as well and a pair of top-10 games to boot. Defending national champion Texas A&M is in action against No. 9 Louisville, and legendary Tennessee coach Pat Summitt will be on the sideline for her first nationally televised game since receiving her Alzheimer's diagnosis this summer. The third-ranked Lady Vols host No. 7 Miami.
After a barren offseason, this is an embarrassment of hoops riches. Call your boss, stock up on Red Bull and ready the couch groove for extended posterior interaction. The Marathon is here.
4 p.m. ET: Rhode Island at Texas (ESPN/ESPN3)
Hey look, the Tom Penders Classic! Jim Baron's URI team still hasn't broken through to the NCAA tournament, but the Rams have qualified for some version of the postseason every year since 2008. Thanks to the losses of stalwarts like Delroy James and Marquis Jones and the transfer of sophomore Akeem Richmond, the Rams could be in for a spell of rebuilding. Fortunately for Baron, Texas coach Rick Barnes finds himself in a similar position -- albeit with much more talent at his disposal. Gone are forwards Tristan Thompson and Jordan Hamilton, UT's two best players last season. Gone is senior leader Gary Johnson. Gone is capable freshman point guard (and surprising NBA draft pick) Cory Joseph. The frontcourt is incredibly thin -- Alex Wangmene, who averaged 9.6 minutes last season, is the most experienced returner -- but the backcourt holds promise in the form of Myck Kabongo, one of the best freshman point guard prospects in the country. Many are sleeping on Texas this season and understandably so, but perhaps Barnes and Kabongo have some surprises in store.
6 p.m. ET: (Likely) George Mason at (likely) Virginia Tech (ESPNU)
Before we get too far ahead of ourselves, both teams will need to -- and should -- beat their cupcake first-round NIT Season Tip-Off opponents Monday night. Assuming all goes according to plan, Mason's trip to Blacksburg should be fascinating. Former Georgia Tech coach Paul Hewitt has much to prove at GMU this season, while Virginia Tech coach Seth Greenberg has spent the past four seasons languishing on wrong side of the NCAA tournament bubble. Greenberg was hoping for the healthy return of senior JT Thompson, but Thompson lost his season to another ACL tear two weeks ago. How a younger, retooled Tech team rebounds from this latest setback -- and whether it can be a spoiler in the top-heavy ACC -- is just of the questions surrounding both teams here. Perhaps the Marathon will yield some answers.
(Editor's Note: Well, so much for that. The all-Virginia matchup was spoiled when Florida International -- Zeke! -- upset George Mason in double OT Monday night. So the Panthers will now face the Hokies in Blacksburg with a chance to send Isiah Thomas to [gasp] Madison Square Garden for the NIT semifinals. Oh my.)
7 p.m. ET: Albany/Brown at No. 5 Syracuse (ESPN3)
Syracuse should roll in these early portions of the NIT Season Tip-Off. Neither Albany nor Brown are likely to put up much of a fight against the No. 5 team in the country. But there are always lessons to learn in early-season action, and there are some questions about this Syracuse team. Can Scoop Jardine and Brandon Triche take good shots, manage the game and make the Orange better than the sum of their talented parts? After a disappointing freshman season, is Fab Melo ready for a breakout campaign? Which, if any, of Jim Boeheim's talented youngsters will step up and take a major role as a freshman? Is Syracuse a national title contender? That seems like a lot to learn in one game, let alone against the likes of Albany or Brown. We won't get all the answers Tuesday night, but the glimpses will be worth noting.
7 p.m. ET: No. 6 Duke vs. Michigan State in New York (ESPN/ESPN3)
If you've made it this far in the Marathon, you're dog tired. Your vision may be faulty. You may be considering a warm bath and 15 hours of sleep. And then, if you're anything like me, your adrenaline will kick in. Why? Because this is when things get really good. Two of the nation's most prominent and consistently successful programs squaring off in Madison Square Garden for the inaugural Champions Classic? It's a massive fixture for more than its sheer basketball content. There will be plenty of that, of course. We'll get to see if Michigan State is ready to exceed expectations earlier than usual, and we'll get to learn more about a young Duke team that showcased plenty of its flaws in Friday night's escape vs. Belmont. More importantly, we'll get to see a coaching icon go for his 903rd win, the one that will nudge him above his mentor Bob Knight and make him the winningest coach in Division I college hoops history. If you're a UNC fan with an abiding hatred of Coach K, you can feel free to ignore the historic proceedings, but the rest of us will be watching.
7 p.m. ET: Rutgers at Miami (ESPN3)
The ACC is ripe for the sleeper team pickings. With such a wide-open league, the opportunity for a group to take the reins and push codified contenders North Carolina, Duke and Florida State might be easier than ever. Could Miami be that team? New Hurricanes coach Jim Larranaga will have to overcome some significant challenges to do so, namely the loss of forward Julian Gamble to an ACL tear and Reggie Johnson to a knee surgery that will sideline him until December. But Miami's guards -- Malcolm Grant and Durand Scott -- are among the most experienced in the ACC. That experience could give them the edge against Rutgers, where coach Mike Rice didn't hesitate to add four freshman guards (from a recruiting class ranked No. 16 in the nation) to the rotation in the Scarlet Knights' season-opening win over Dartmouth.
7 p.m. ET: La Salle at Villanova (ESPN3)
Like their Big East counterparts Syracuse, this shouldn't -- emphasis on shouldn't (it is the Big 5 after all) -- be much of a test for Villanova. The Explorers lost three starters, including their entire frontcourt, from a team that finished 15-18 last season. Nova fans are used to rolling easy opponents, but things have gotten ugly in Philly lately. The Wildcats collapsed in 2010, and a six-game losing streak to close last season gave the Cats the distinction of being the only team in history to lose their final six games and still receive an NCAA tournament bid. Villanova fans are desperate to put the past two seasons' disappointments behind them. Friday's season opener, a 106-70 win over Monmouth, was a promising start, and the presence of talented returners like Maalik Wayns, Dominic Cheek (who scored 27 in the season opener) and Mouphtaou Yarou bodes well. But there's a long road ahead.
8 p.m. ET: No. 8 Florida at No. 3 Ohio State (ESPN2/ESPN3)
Welcome to hour No. 21. It was this time last season when, having just chatted for 20 straight hours, yours truly was beginning to think the Marathon would never end. I became awash in existential doubt. I may have been hallucinating. I can't really remember. Then Jared Sullinger and the Ohio State Buckeyes woke me up. I wasn't the only one. OSU's dominant win in Gainesville announced the presence of Sullinger and the Bucks as one of the nation's true national championship contenders -- and they've been hunting that title ever since. Sullinger is back for his sophomore season, and he's already begun to flash his expanded perimeter game; he even knocked down a 3 in Ohio State's season-opening romp over Wright State. But Florida is no Wright State. When the Gators arrive in Columbus, they'll bring one of the best -- certainly the deepest -- backcourts in the country. Erving Walker and Kenny Boynton are experienced; freshman Bradley Beal is among the nation's elite new talents; and Rutgers transfer Mike Rosario, who reached the 1,000-point mark with the Scarlet Knights by his sophomore season, is a scoring machine. Florida's frontcourt won't do much scoring this season, but thanks to sophomore Patric Young, it will be as physically forceful as any in the country. Florida is hoping to make a statement symmetrical to Ohio State's, using an impressive road win to prove that it should be counted among the nation's elite. Your fatigue-induced hallucinations will have to wait.
8 p.m. ET: Arkansas-Pine Bluff at Oklahoma State (ESPN3)
Is Oklahoma State underrated? The Pokes were picked to finish seventh in the Big 12 preseason coaches' poll, and they've received minimal preseason buzz. But there is some serious talent in Stillwater. Chief among that talent is freshman small forward LeBryan Nash, the No. 10-ranked player in the Class of 2011, whose combination of size (6-foot-7) and ballhandling ability could make him a lottery pick when he decides to take his talents to the NBA. The Cowboys lost both frontcourt starters last season but get redshirt freshman Michael Cobbins back from injury; now-graduated forward Marshall Moses predicted Cobbins would one day become the Big 12 Player of the Year. Sure, this fixture isn't going to make you flip over from Duke-MSU, Florida-OSU or the big one just below this paragraph, but keep an eye on Nash and company. They may be better than you think.
9 p.m. ET: No. 2 Kentucky vs. No. 11 Kansas in New York (ESPN/ESPN3)
This is the final marquee fixture of the Marathon and, man, is it a good one. The subplots abound. The programs, the two winningest in the sport's history, represent college hoops royalty. The coaches faced off in the 2008 national championship game -- Mario's Miracle! -- and in numerous high-profile recruiting battles ever since. The teams are insanely talented, especially Kentucky. On Tuesday night, the Wildcats will get to show what happens when you add the No. 1 point guard (Marquis Teague), the No. 1 small forward (Michael Kidd-Gilchrist) and the No. 1 power forward (Anthony Davis) in a single recruiting class to a team that already returns national player of the year candidate Terrence Jones and sharpshooter extraordinaire Doron Lamb. Kansas will need to get an expected star turn from former reserve Thomas Robinson and heady play from experienced but mercurial point guard Tyshawn Taylor to hang with Calipari's high-octane machine. If you like basketball, I'm not sure you can find a more entertaining two hours anywhere. I'm so excited. (Can you tell I'm excited?)
10 p.m. ET: Austin Peay at No. 22 California (ESPN2/ESPN3)
Cal may be the best team in the Pac-12. With reigning conference freshman of the year Allen Crabbe, first-team all-league guard Jorge Gutierrez and second-team forward Harper Kamp, the Bears are certainly one of the most individually honored. With all that talent returning -- plus the addition and early excellence of Minnesota transfer Justin Cobbs -- the expectations are, well, what you'd expect. Most assume the Bears will contend for the conference crown. We'll see. In the meantime, they'd be wise to remain lucid for their tilt with Austin Peay. The Governors didn't play well in their opener but do return four starters from last season's 20-win team. Longtime coach Dave Loos has his own expectations -- namely, that his team will win the Ohio Valley and get back to the NCAA tournament in 2012. If Cal is a fraction as tired as you are at this point, the Governors will be ready to strike.
11 p.m. ET: (Likely) Colorado State at (likely) Stanford (ESPNU)
Assuming the Rams and Cardinal both handle their first-round matchups Monday night -- Stanford plays Fresno State, and Colorado State gets SMU -- then the Cardinal will have to fend off talented CSU guards Dorian Green, Jesse Carr and Wes Eikmeier. That trio was one of the main reasons the Rams won 19 games in 2011 -- their winningest season since 1998 -- and even briefly flirted with at-large NCAA tournament contention. Stanford coach Johnny Dawkins has seen his program slip into irrelevance in the past two (losing) seasons, and he's hoping a young core can rebuild the Cardinal into the competitive powerhouse college hoops fans were once so accustomed to. Some encouraging early signs are the goal here.
Of course, that goal pales in comparison to ours: watching 25 straight hours of college basketball. If you made it this far in the Marathon, congratulate yourself. Sing the traditional theme song. Last year we chose "We Are The Champions," and I just decided it's a tradition, so have it ready. Be sure to go to a mirror and take a photo of yourself. You'll look terrible, but beneath the stubble and baggy eyes you'll see the steely gaze of glorious victory. This is your One Shining Moment.
Once you've slept, showered and returned to society, don't be sad. Remember, you still have five more months of college hoops ahead of you. The Marathon is only the beginning. How great is that?
Eamonn Brennan covers college basketball for ESPN.com. You can see his work in the College Basketball Nation blog.
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