Early Look: Ranking the ESPN Tip-Off Marathon’s Top Five MatchupsPosted by Chris Johnson on August 13th, 2013
Chris Johnson is an RTC Columnist. He can be reached @ChrisDJohnsonn.
Covering college basketball year-round can, in the months not filled with actual college basketball, turn into a scavenger hunt for interesting topics to write about. We’ve just about hit the nadir of the offseason college hoops news cycle, and trust me, the next month or so could get even worse. Luckily, ESPN came through early this week with a totally awesome diversion – its release of the schedule, ordered in lockstep with the actual succession of games three months from now, for the 2013 24-hour Tip-Off Marathon, which begins at 7:00 PM on November 11. It’s become annual appointment viewing for college basketball dorks, myself humbly included, and the match-ups this year are just as enticing, if not more so, than anything the Mothership has lined up since the event’s christening. Now that I’ve explained the basics, and there’s nothing else to do during this offseason dry spell but anxiously await the start of games this fall, it’s as good a time as any to pick out the Marathon’s very best games, five of them – which will only have the effect of intensifying your craving for the beginning of the season. But hey, I pine for November just as much as you do. With our mutual longing for the upcoming season now recognized, let’s look ahead to one of the year’s best non-conference events. I’ll be waiting, caffeine and sugary comestibles in hand, buttocks planted to padded recliner, cathartically rejoicing after a long offseason spent, well, doing this.
1. Duke vs. Kansas (November 12, 10:00 PM ET, ESPN)
This selection could have been predicted when ESPN released its highly-anticipated Champions Classic duo a long while ago. There are two match-ups to consider here. First, we get two of the most culturally impactful, nationally successful, blueblood-identifiable programs in the country squaring off in a potential Final Four, or even National Championship, preview. These teams are going to be good. The top-ranked freshmen they inherited this season are even better. Duke’s Jabari Parker and Kansas’ Andrew Wiggins are the main attractions — not just of this game, but of the entire college hoops season writ large; both are expected to enjoy wildly successful one-year stints in college, lead their respective teams on deep NCAA Tournament runs and land a spot in the NBA Draft lottery shortly thereafter. That process will get its formal introduction this November, in the second half of the Champion Classic’s cant-miss double-header (which coincides with the finale of the Tip-off Marathon). If you’re limiting your Marathon sampling size to just one game – first things first: I strongly urge you to reconsider – this is the game of choice, no doubt about it. It’s been a long time since college basketball has seen so much freshmen star power this enticing enter its ranks. Watching the very best of it, two generational NBA franchise-changers, going head-to-head during the first month of the season is a treat no fixture on the 2013-14 hoops calendar can possibly hope to live up to. Maybe the Final Four. Other than that? Nah.
2. Kentucky vs. Michigan State (November 12, 7:30 PM ET, ESPN)
Everything that comes before Duke-Kansas will – if the Wiggins-Parker showdown meets our wildest expectations – be forgotten in relatively short order by casual fans. This game could stand as the lone exception. If asked to provide a national title prediction on the spot, with zero knowledge of seeding or season win-loss totals or anything else that might help guide my predictive intellect, I’d probably pick these two teams. Oddly enough, UK and MSU share almost nothing in common. The Spartans are built around a solid returning core headlined by seniors Keith Appling and Adreian Payne along with sophomore Gary Harris. Harris and Payne enter 2013 with the most bullish individual forecasts a returning college player can receive – all-conference first-team, All-American, and so on. Appling, meanwhile, is as volatile as he is talented; his frequent turnovers, mixed with occasionally brilliant offensive play, have fostered something of a love-hate relationship with Spartans fans. If he can put it all together, MSU is as strong a title contender as there is entering 2013-14. And Kentucky, well, you know the drill: six McDonald’s All-Americans, four players ranked No. 1 at their respective positions, two returning sophomores in Willie Caulie-Stein and Alex Poythress, all with first-round draft pick potential. After seeing these two teams featured as the lead act in the game’s marquee non-conference event (the Champions Classic), don’t be surprised to see them follow up with an appearance in the game’s marquee postseason event (at the Final Four).
3. Florida at Wisconsin (November 12, 9:00 PM ET, ESPN2)
Writing things about Wisconsin is an inherently repetitive process. You say the same things about Bo Ryan’s teams each and every year because they almost never change; and if they do, the differences usually come down to a single player’s graduation or an incoming freshman getting big minutes right away. Wisconsin will play slow, it will grind you for 40 minutes with its bruising defensive style, it won’t turn the ball over, it will win and lose most of its games by very few points. These are timeless characteristics of Ryan-coached teams. Don’t expect anything different in 2013-14, other than, perhaps, a more prominent workload for former top-20 recruit Sam Dekker, who has the potential to blossom into an all-conference type. Opposing the metronome known as Wisconsin are the Gators, which are, by all accounts, the only answer to the “Will anybody be able to even touch Kentucky in the SEC this season?” question. Led by big man Patric Young, a stable of returning veterans, two productive transfers, and a freshmen class that ranks among the best in college hoops, Florida has assembled more than enough pieces to exceed the Elite Eight baseline it has now reached in three consecutive seasons. The Gators are the more talented outfit, but when has that ever mattered much to Wisconsin, especially in the Kohl Center? No matter who wins this game, expect it to come down to the last few possessions, and – if you can’t manage to click away from the Champions Classic for a moment — I’d strongly advise you brush up your DVR skills beforehand.
4. VCU at Virginia (November 12, 7:00 PM, ESPN2)
One of the things that separates college basketball from the NBA is the more liberal acceptance of different styles its various leagues and teams, often by necessity, allow. VCU thrives on a manic full-court-trapping system that throttles most opponents into turnover-ravaged fits of frustration. Virginia utilizes a pack-line defense and runs some of the slowest, possession-elongating, tempo-killing offense in the country. See? Now, just imagine what it would be like to see these two contrasting teams meet in a 7:00 PM time slot on national television, just before the Marathon winds down to a thrilling late-night double-header finish? That’s what’s amazing about this Marathon thing: Every game is followed, or aired at the same time as, an even more appealing match-up. But let’s focus on VCU-UVA. The Rams are the odds-on favorite to win the deflated A-10, while Virginia – though glossed over in the early season ACC “best conference ever” debates thanks to Syracuse and Duke and North Carolina’s assumed stranglehold on the conference title chase – brings back arguably the best team coach Tony Bennett has had since taking over five years ago. Lead guard Joe Harris and big man Akil Mitchell are one of the best one-two inside-out tandems in the country, and both will have a huge say in whether the Cavaliers can stay composed, lock down the paint and turn VCU’s havoc style into a distinct disadvantage.
5. BYU at Stanford (November 11, 11:00 PM, ESPN2)
The first game of the Tip-off Marathon might not stack up with the last few contests ESPN’s schedule-makers produced, but it could have huge implications for the NCAA Tournament. And anytime one finds the opportunity to talk about the bubble and RPI and at-large invitations in August, passing it up would be like preemptively turning down a lifetime pass to the Grotto at the Playboy Mansion. (Interpret my exaggeration how you will: The college basketball offseason can make any rabid hoops fan go a little crazy). Both BYU and Stanford could be fighting for their NCAA Tournament lives deep into March, and early November games like this – particularly since the NCAA officially eliminated its prior emphasis on the final 12 games of the season – are the salient data points that often push or parry away a team’s bracket dreams. This particular match-up could wind up being even more crucial for Cardinal coach Johnny Dawkins, who almost assuredly needs to get his group over the bubble hump to save his job. The Cougars bring back a sneaky good guard pairing in Matt Carlino and Tyler Haws, and could give WCC kingpin Gonzaga a run for its money at the top of the league this season. Stanford will counter with Chasson Randle and Aaron Bright, a formidable backcourt duo in its own right, along with explosive big man Josh Powell. The Cardinal should defend its home court with minimal fuss, but if BYU were to sink it on its home floor, the flame under Dawkins’ seat would heat up a few degrees. Conversely, the Cougars would have banked a solid non-conference resume chip before WCC play. Man, bubble talk in August. I don’t care if I’m way out over my skis: Just talking about real college basketball games, in the midst of the months-long post-March lull we’re still trudging through, is an extraordinary thing.