This year's Champions Classic features four legendary coaches, including Tom Izzo and Mike Krzyzewski. (Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)
ESPN's annual college basketball Tip-off Marathon is one of my favorite WWLIS devices for promoting the sport they dominate on TV. College hoops lacks a truly meaningful opening day, so back-to-back games for a full 24 hours serves as the "unofficial official" start of the season.
For the past three years (including this one), ESPN has been able to use the Champions Classic as the final act, and this season's doubleheader in Chicago (Kentucky-Michigan State and Kansas-Duke) easily could feature four top-five teams and maybe as many candidates for the top five in next spring's NBA draft. It's a remarkable convergence of talent and blue-blood program pedigree that is an absolute must-watch.
Much of the rest of this season's marathon slate is lacking that kind of pop, but there's some fascinating counter-programming available during the nightcaps. Regardless, you and I will still be watching huge chunks of it, because that's what we do. Here's a quick rundown of the slate:
New Opening Acts
ESPN has added a couple of earlier games this season (in addition to two women's games) to whet your whistle before the start of the actual Marathon. Both of them should be various levels of watchable.
Kent State at Temple (7 p.m. EST on Nov. 11)
The Owls have lost Khalif Wyatt and several other solid contributors, so Fran Dunphy needs to reboot as the program enters the American Athletic and has to deal with Louisville, UConn, Cincy and Memphis, among others. Scootie Randall hit the Golden Flashes for 31 in this matchup last season. Kent State is about to embark on a trip to the Bahamas, which will help start the process of replacing Chris Evans and Randal Holt.
Colorado State at Gonzaga (9 p.m. EST)
When the game was confirmed last week, the suspicion was it was part of the Marathon. It kind of is, and in a better time slot, too. The Rams lost all five starters from last season's Round of 32 squad but have Jon Octeus and Daniel Bejarano to start rebuilding around. The Zags will shift back to a more perimeter-oriented approach after losing Elias Harris and Kelly Olynyk, but they remain talented all across the floor. Given the Zags have only lost nine games at the new Kennel since it opened, this obviously is a tough spot for CSU.
The Traditional Marathon
BYU at Stanford (11 p.m. EST on Nov. 11)
The first of what could be a couple of legitimate November bubble games in the Marathon. Stanford returns a lot of talent from a team that underachieved a bit last season. BYU has Tyler Haws and returns Kyle Collinsworth, maybe as the new point guard. The Cougars need to do better in nonconference play than they have recently, especially with St. Mary's dropping off a bit in the WCC. Quality road wins like this will help in March for at-large purposes. Watching Haws, Chasson Randle and Josh Huestis work will suffice for viewers.
Western Kentucky at Wichita State (1 a.m. EST)
WKU has won the Sun Belt auto-bid lottery a couple of times recently, but this game is all about showcasing Final Four participant Wichita State, which brings back a load of talent from that roster and now is the kingpin in the Valley with Creighton exiting. Cleanthony Early will get appropriate levels of pub, but I'm part of #TeamRonBaker. There will be a Valley POY award in his future. And yeah, a midnight local tip at Koch Arena will be a sight to see.
Akron at Saint Mary's (3 a.m. EST)
Both teams made the NCAAs last season, and Akron may have the better chance of returning despite losing 7-footer Zeke Marshall. This is another game, especially for the road-standing Zips, that could be a key feather in an at-large profile down the road. Things won't be the same, at least not immediately, for the Gaels without Matthew Dellavedova running the show.
New Mexico State at Hawaii (5 a.m. EST)
This is Hawaii's automatic slot in the Marathon thanks to the time zone difference on the islands, but viewers may think they're truly in another world when they get a look at Aggies 7-foot-5-inch center Sim Bhullar, perpetrator of one of last season's greatest gifs.
Hartford at Florida Gulf Coast (7 a.m. EST)
Why not let the Eagles carry the party into the daylight hours so America can get a breakfast peek at what Dunk City will look like in Year 1 AE (after Enfield). Former Kansas assistant Joe Dooley has plenty left to work with, starting with crafty orchestrator Brett Comer.
Never forget: Dunk City video
Quinnipiac at La Salle (9 a.m. EST)
Another reward game for a surprise Sweet 16 team that's bringing back most of the core that woke the echoes of Lionel Simmons. Plus, Q-pac, itself heading to the MAAC this season, should be a scrappy foe. Tom Moore has done an underrated job in Hamden.
LSU at UMass (11 a.m. EST)
Another game that could resonate significantly for the winner (and loser) in March. LSU is fancied to continue its rise in the SEC and could be an NCAA team this season. UMass has been quietly knocking on the door for a couple seasons and needs to win games like this at home, especially with the revamped A-10 featuring fewer marquee chances for league wins. This one should be entertaining at the very least.
West Virginia at Virginia Tech (1 p.m. EST)
Maybe this is when you grab a siesta? The Hokies were extraordinarily thin and young last season, so even with losing star Erick Green, expect some progress. Bob Huggins is hoping for some addition by subtraction after jettisoning Aaric Murray.
South Carolina at Baylor (3 p.m. EST)
Back to the Big 12 for Frank Martin, who was 4-4 against Scott Drew and the Bears in his five seasons at Kansas State. Martin's Gamecocks remain in rebuilding mode but of a deeper kind than Baylor's, where there's still plenty of talent if the departure of Pierre Jackson can be overcome.
NC State at Cincinnati (5 p.m. EST)
A nice platform for two teams in various stages of rebuilding to see where they are. The headliner is Bearcats senior Sean Kilpatrick, who will be leading a really young group for Mick Cronin this season.
VCU at Virginia (7 p.m. EST)
Great contrast of styles and an in-state showdown to boot, but why are you putting this one up against the marquee doubleheader??? I like the Sweet 16-style staggered starts, but still. Anyway, Joe Harris and the Cavaliers deserve this kind of platform this season (along with a couple high-profile Big Monday appearances), and everyone wants to watch VCU's Havoc do its thing. Should be a fascinating ballgame.
Champions Classic: Kentucky-Michigan State, Kansas-Duke (7:30 p.m. EST start)
Oh, nothing to see here. Except Julius Randle, James Young, the Harrison twins, Gary Harris, Adreian Payne, Jabari Parker, Rodney Hood, Wayne Selden and some Wiggins guy. And whoever else I omitted for space. And four of the game's best coaches. And their fan bases.
Florida at Wisconsin (9 p.m. EST)
Not a bad way to spend time between the two Champions Classic games at the very least. The Gators have some experienced holdovers to go with some talented new freshmen and will get a stern test against the Badgers, who should be very solid again and rarely lose at home.
So, we get 29 straight hours of anywhere from mostly watchable to tremendous games. We still have to wait three months for all of this? Ughhh.