ESPN’s tip off marathon is sort of gimmicky, but in a few short years it has signaled the start of college basketball season as much as anything else, and it has been a great jumping off point to get into the season, culminating for the third year in a row with the Champions Classic featuring Kansas, Michigan State, Duke and Kentucky.
Like the first weekend of the NCAA tournament, the tip off marathon is a great excuse to skip class (or miss work), but if you do have actual real life things to do on November 12th (boring) here’s a guide of the best five games in the marathon to make sure you can maximize your college hoops watching time.
note: I’m not ranking the champions classic games because everyone and their dog will and should be watching Kansas-Duke and Michigan State-Kentucky.
5. Western Kentucky at Wichita State, 1 AM, ESPN2
The Shockers don’t get the best tip time as a reward for making the Final Four last year, but Charles Koch Arena is one of the best mid major environments in the country, and the Shocker faithful should have a special crowd in store for a national game on ESPN2. Cleanthony Early will get a national stage to show what he can do early in the season (no pun intended) and I think his name will be on the lips of a lot of All American voters well into the season. The Shockers lose three Seniors off last year’s Final Four squad, but with Early back and Creighton off to the AAC, Wichita State should be the heavy favorites in the Valley.
Western Kentucky, meanwhile, struggled in the Sun Belt regular season, but they won the conference tournament and almost pulled off the first ever 16 over 1 upset in the first round of the NCAA tournament last year. The Hilltoppers return four starters and could provide a good test for the Shockers. The problem with that is that Western Kentucky didn’t do a lot well last year. They crashed the glass on offense reasonably well, but they were horrible from three, only scored from two in conference play and got some decent luck in terms of three point defense. Factoring in some improvement, they should be good enough to challenge for the Sun Belt title but they probably won’t be much of a match for the Shockers.
4. Hartford at Florida Gulf Coast, 7 AM, ESPN2
If I were a person with actual responsibilities I probably wouldn’t get up at 6 central time to watch this game. What I will do though is DVR this game and go through how many alley oops FGCU throws. With first year head coach Joe Dooley it is a bit uncertain as to what their style of play will be, but with a national TV audience and a chance to build on the momentum they amassed last year, FGCU will likely try to dunk it every time down the floor.
Hartford will pretty much be sacrificial lamb for the Eagles, but they have a couple fun traits to watch. First, they forced a lot of turnovers last year (10th) and a lot of steals (19th), so while they did not play all that fast if they gamble a lot on defense we could be treated to a lot of dunks between both teams.
3. South Carolina at Baylor, 3 PM, ESPN
The Gamecocks were terrible last year, finishing lower in KenPom than South Carolina Upstate, but second year coach Frank Martin is adding talent in a hurry in Columbia. Their main prize this year is ESPN’s 7th ranked SG, Sindarius Thornwell. The Gamecocks ranked 12th in the SEC in offense last year, but one place they excelled was on the offensive glass, where they ranked 14th in the entire country. Freshman Michael Carrera had the 9th best offensive rebound rate in the nation last year (16%) despite standing just 6’6”.
Baylor meanwhile is trying to go from NIT champs to a deep NCAA tournament run, and they have the talent to do it. Cory Jefferson is probably going to get most of the ink (as well he should, he was 13th in offensive rating last year) but the player I am most intrigued by is 7 footer Isaiah Austin. Despite his height, he shot under 50% from two and took more of his shots as 2 point jumpers than at the rim. The big question in Waco, of coure, will be who replaces Pierre Jackson, who despite his size was the best point guard in the conference last year.
2. VCU at Virginia, 7 PM, ESPN 2
We don’t find a game featuring more contrasting styles during the marathon, and we might not find one all year. VCU and HAVOC take on a Virginia team that was 328th in tempo last year and whose offensive possessions were among the longest in the country. With Jontel Evans gone, a new point guard will have to try to break that press, and if he can’t the game will be over for the Cavaliers before it even begins. The key beyond that, however, will be how often Virginia can get the ball to Joe Harris, who shot 50% from two, 42% from three and had a 16% assist rate last year for Virginia. Towards the end of last year he probably shed the “best player no one knows about” title, but with all of the talent coming into college basketball this year he might reassume that title in no time.
VCU, meanwhile, returns three starters, including their two most important offensive players and two best offensive rebounders. They did lose by far their best three point shooter in Troy Daniels, but the biggest fix for the Rams will be in half court defense. Despite forcing more turnovers than any team in the country last year, VCU was just 6th in the conference in PPP allowed, a product of being ranked 267th nationally in 2 point defense.
1. Florida at Wisconsin, 9 PM, ESPN2
Wisconsin loses some great players off last year’s team, but they return should be household name Sam Dekker. Dekker scored fewer than 10 ppg last year and played in just under 55% of the team’s minutes in a move I can only think was designed to keep him off NBA radars. Dekker shot 39% from three, 57% from two and chipped in on the boards as well. At 6’7”, 220 lbs I imagine Bo Ryan will want to see more rebounding from Dekker, but he has all the tools to have a great Sophomore season.
Florida loses a lot of talent from last year’s team, but they should have enough back to make another run at the Final Four. Will Yeguete and Scottie Wilbekin are back to provide the Gators with some of the best perimeter defense in the country, and Patric Young backed up a good offensive season with another good offensive season, and more than doubled his blocked shots percentage in the process.
The most intriguing Gators, though, might be a pair of Freshmen. Kasey Hill has a big wingspan and has really good vision for an incoming Freshman. He’s shown the ability to shoot both from beyond the arc and on pull ups. The other Freshman is even more highly acclaimed Chris Walker, a versatile 6’9” forward who can score, rebound and has the potential to develop into a very good defender.....if he is eligible. The Gators are still sorting that out and while they should be able to get by Wisconsin regardless, Walker could provide them the extra boost they need to get to the Final Four.