Studio host Ryan Burr kept wishing viewers Merry Christmas during ESPN's College Hoops Tip-Off Marathon earlier this week, an event that included a 13-game, 26-hour extravaganza on the network's main channel and even more games on its other platforms. It included such marquee matchups as Ohio State-Florida and Virginia Tech-Kansas State along with some intriguing mid-major games as San Diego State-Gonzaga and Robert Morris-Kent State.
In a sense, it was like Christmas morning for college basketball fans. And Christmas afternoon and evening, too. There is little doubt the marathon has gained plenty of traction in its four-year history as schools from low majors like Monmouth are willing to tip off at 6 a.m. to be part of it and such national powers as Michigan State and Memphis are willing to start home games late at night.
"That was a tremendous thing ESPN did," Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said. "For all the teams involved, especially those not in tournaments, to play those levels of games, I compliment those schools and coaches for doing it."
Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith, chairman of the NCAA Division I men's basketball committee, was right in the thick of the marathon as his Buckeyes went on the road and posted an impressive 93-75 win over Florida. He would like to take ESPN's idea one step further and have an official opening day to the college basketball season. Smith said the committee had informal discussions about such an event last week when it met in New Orleans.
Smith was quick to point out that the NCAA loves ESPN's marathon. However, he would like it more if came a few days earlier in the season than after the first full weekend of games.
"In the first week, it didn't seem to have the energy and excitement we thought the start of the season should have," Smith said. "So it's really a discussion we thought we needed to keep in our radars as we move forward with the changing landscape of college basketball, with our new television partners. So it's nothing that is definitive for us. It was just a casual conversation that we thought was good to keep on our agenda for the future to see if we could bring early attention and awareness to basketball."
Smith would also like to see more compelling matchups to open the season instead of most Division I teams scheduling creampuffs. He believes the proliferation of games between high-majors and low-majors and mid- and low- majors against Division II, Division III and NAIA teams are part of the reason why the season's start goes practically unnoticed.
"You look at the game that were played this week, the great games coming up over the next several days with Michigan State and Duke, Butler and Duke, Kansas State and Gonzaga, Purdue and Virginia Tech, and you keep going on," Smith said. "The great games that are happening now sure would have been great to happen in the first week early."
Selection Committee's Work Should be the Same
The primary focus of Smith and the committee, of course, comes at the end of the season when it selects the at-large teams then seeds the NCAA Tournament field, which expands by three teams to 68 this season. Smith admits he is already looking ahead and wondering what challenges the expanded field might provide to the committee.
"It's really hard to speculate what that moment will bring for us," Smith said. "Our policies and procedures on selecting and seeding and bracketing will pretty much stay the same. We'll move through our process. Now, as opposed to stopping, we'll go to 37 at‑large. I just don't see us changing anything. I still believe there are going to be that 38th and 39th teams that feel they should have been the 36th or 37th team. To my view, it will be a continued level of excitement from that perspective."
Under the leadership of chairman Dan Guerrero, the UCLA athletic director, the committee changed its focus somewhat in selecting and seeding teams during the previous two years. Guerrero believed in emphasizing what he called a team's "body of work" rather than concentrating too much on its last 10-12 games of the season. Smith, too, is a full-season guy.
"I don't really see any changes," Smith said. "I think the committees over the years have done a marvelous job, bringing us to this point where we have great focus. We've been blessed to have great teams that have emerged and have great tournaments in Final Fours. We will continue to look at the total body of work. We will continue to put an emphasis on how did you do, where did you play, all those types of things. The November games are critical. They're very important. When you have teams like Georgetown going to play at Old Dominion, you have the great games coming up, Kansas State beating Virginia Tech recently, all those games matter. So we've started watching games and evaluating teams right now."
Duke Looking Like the Favorite
Duke came into the season as the unanimous No. 1 team in the nation after winning the national championship last spring. The Blue Devils have certainly looked the part so far by routing Princeton 97-60 and Miami (Ohio) 79-45.
Duke has showed outstanding balance. Senior guard Nolan Smith is leading the way with averages of 16.0 points, 4.5 rebounds, 6.5 assists and 27.5 minutes. Four other players are also scoring in double figures: sophomore guard Seth Curry (15.5/2.0/1.0/23.0), freshman guard Kyrie Irving (15.0/4.5/5.5/22.0), senior forward Kyle Singler (12.0/4.5/2.0/27.5) and sophomore guard Andre Dawkins (11.0/2.0/0.5/23.0).
"This team has probably got more natural talent but a lot less experience," Krzyzewski said in comparing this season's team to the national champions. "We started three seniors and two juniors last year. That was my oldest team in I don't know how many years. This year we have two seniors and one junior, the rest are freshmen and sophomores. That's the biggest difference. We need to gain experience, competitive experience, as individuals but also as a group. There's a big difference between the two teams in style of play. The character of the kids is the same, but we just need to get more experience as the year goes along, and we will."
Curry and Irving have been as good as advertised in the early going. Curry is a transfer from Davidson and Irving was considered the best high school point guard in the nation last winter.
"They're very talented," Krzyzewski said. "They just need to learn about the college game, and they will because of the schedule that we play. But they're good players and great kids. Hopefully by March they'll be at a high level."
Butler Looking for Improvement
Last season's other national finalist is not off to such a good start. Butler is 1-1, beating Marian, an NAIA school, 83-54 in its opener then getting handled by Louisville 88-73 in the opening of the Cardinals' KFC Yum! Center. The margin of defeat against Louisville was surprising considering the Cardinals are not expected to contend for the Big East title this season.
"Our entire focus and attention has to be on our team improving, then we'll see if we can do what we do a little bit better," Butler coach Brad Stevens said. "That's part of the process. Good teams learn and grow. Other teams have moments. We want to be a team that has those moments fairly consistently."
Louisville is the first of three teams Butler will play from the Big Six power conference as the Bulldogs will meet Duke on December 4 at East Rutherford, N.J. and host Stanford on Dec. 18. Butler will also face Ball State, Siena, Evansville, Xavier , Mississippi Valley State and Utah in non-conference games as it continues to schedule aggressively outside the Horizon League. Stevens believes his team benefits from playing top competition.
"One of the things I do think we benefit from in this schedule is on December 25, when we're home for a couple days over Christmas break, we've got a pretty good idea of what we need to improve on because we've probably been exposed," Stevens said. "That was the case last year. Towards the end of the year, we were playing a lot better."
John Perrotto is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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