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November 14, 2011
Tip-Off Marathon
The Viewer's Guide

by John Gasaway

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The 2011-12 college basketball season has tipped off at last. A game's been played on an aircraft carrier, Duke had the daylights scared out of them at home by an Atlantic Sun opponent, and UCLA looks like they already miss Pauley Pavilion. (The arena's currently undergoing renovations. The Bruins may need upgrading too.) A lot's happened already, but until we have our 24 hours of hoops it's not really a new season, is it?

Good news. The College Hoops Tip-Off Marathon is here. As a professional in these matters, I strongly advise you to watch all 19 games (17 men's and two women's). I can happily provide a note to that effect for you to show your employer. However in the interest of brevity I'm going to preview just a few of the games here.

To evaluate these match-ups in advance, I'll deploy the same basic three-question test that I've long used to look at any team this early in the season: How good were you last year? Who's back? And who's new? As always, I'll measure a team's experience by looking at their percentage of returning possession-minutes (RPMs), a metric that takes into account not only playing time but also how prominent a player was in his team's offense the previous season.

By the way, all data on per-possession scoring margins comes to us courtesy of the College Basketball Prospectus 2011-12. In my unbiased opinion, it's essential that you purchase a copy of this authoritative and exceptionally well-edited book.

(All times Eastern)

Washington State at Gonzaga
ESPN. Midnight

Margin: per-possession scoring margin, 2011 conference games only
RPMs: returning possession-minutes from last year

              2011 margin  RPMs(%)   Who's New?
Washington St.   +0.01      56       Mike Ladd, DaVonte Lacy
Gonzaga          +0.17      67       Gary Bell, Jr.

The Bulldogs return more experience from a team that was better than Washington State last year, and Mark Few's men are playing at home. Then again in this battle for bragging rights in the 509 area code you can throw records out the window, right? The Zags' Robert Sacre is the rare seven-footer who makes less than half his attempts from inside the arc, but the big guy is deadly (83 percent) at the line, a place he visits often. Meanwhile Ken Bone is looking for a new leader on offense now that Klay Thompson's in the NBA. Faisal Aden, a 6-4 senior, is certainly not afraid to lead by shooting. If those shots go in, the Cougars may have a chance.

Kent State at West Virginia
ESPN, 10am

              2011 margin  RPMs(%)   Who's New?
Kent St.         +0.09      81       Chris Evans
West Virginia    +0.05      46       Jabarie Hinds

Kent State might be the best team in the MAC this season, and if you saw Akron win at Mississippi State the other night you know that's saying something. The Golden Flashes were the league's regular-season champions last year, and just about everyone has returned from that team except the head coach (Geno Ford, who took the job at Bradley). As a result Rob Senderoff will enter his first-ever game as a head coach with an experienced roster, one led by 6-8 senior and reigning MAC Player of the Year Justin Greene. That being said, Morgantown's a notoriously tough place to play, and while Bob Huggins will tell you how young his Mountaineers are he does return his nucleus of Truck Bryant and Kevin Jones. Keep an eye on Kent State's defensive glass. The Flashes struggled there last year, while West Virginia makes up for sub-par shooting by hauling in their own (numerous) misses.

Belmont at Memphis
ESPN, Noon

              2011 margin  RPMs(%)   Who's New?
Belmont          +0.31      83       Reece Chamberlain
Memphis          -0.01      92       Adonis Thomas, Ferrakohn Hall

Belmont's conference, the Atlantic Sun, isn't what you'd call a major conference or even a "high mid-major." But if you're outscoring any league by an amazing three-tenths of a point for every possession you play, you deserve the presumption of excellence. The Bruins proved as much at Cameron Indoor Stadium the other night, falling to Duke 77-76. That game was representative of the Belmont "way," as six of Rick Byrd's players scored between nine and 15 points and made Mike Krzyzewski sweat for win No. 901. As for the host Tigers, I'm on the record as being skeptical of their preseason top-10 ranking. But let's keep that skepticism in perspective, shall we? Even if I'm right and Josh Pastner's team should be a few spots lower in the polls, this game still looms as a tall order for the Bruins. After Memphis the toughest opponent Belmont will face (at least until the NCAA tournament) figures to be Marshall, and next year Byrd's team will take its act to the Ohio Valley Conference. So forgive me for making a sweeping statement. If you're ever going to see an A-Sun team win on a top-10 opponent's home court in your lifetime, this will have to be it.

San Diego State at Baylor
ESPN, 2pm

              2011 margin  RPMs(%)   Who's New?
San Diego St.    +0.16      24       Garrett Green, Xavier Thames
Baylor           -0.04      71       Quincy Miller, Deuce Bello

These two teams have combined to play five games this season, so we can already hazard some observations based on current performance. The Aztecs are really young, and even with major-conference transfers like Garrett Green (LSU) and Xavier Thames (Washington State) in the starting lineup, you have to give Steve Fisher credit for courage in scheduling. Kawhi Leonard's long gone, and with this game SDSU embarks on a notably robust stretch of early-season ball: at Baylor, vs. USC, vs. Long Beach State, at Arizona, at UC-Santa Barbara, vs. Creighton, and vs. Cal. For Baylor, freshman Quincy Miller looks like he's already in Scott Drew's good graces, appearing in the starting lineup and shooting without hesitation. But what I'll be watching in Waco this year is the turnovers. The Bears' problem last year was that they couldn't take care of the basketball, giving it away on an incredible 25 percent of their possessions in Big 12 play. That single deficiency killed them as a team, meaning if they take care of that issue this season they can look a lot better in a hurry.

Duke vs. Michigan State (at Madison Square Garden)
ESPN, 7pm

              2011 margin  RPMs(%)   Who's New?
Duke             +0.16      48       Austin Rivers
Michigan St.     -0.04      40       Brandon Wood, Branden Dawson

Mike Krzyzewski's about to pass Bob Knight as the winningest head coach in Division I history, the only question is whether he'll do it against Tom Izzo at the State Farm Champions Classic in Madison Square Garden. Well, yes, he probably will. These are two young teams and certainly the Blue Devils looked anything but invincible against Belmont, but Coach K does have Seth Curry, Andre Dawkins, three Plumlees, and all-everything freshman Austin Rivers. On the other hand Izzo has the magnificent Draymond Green, plenty of youngsters with bright futures, and a lot of present-tense question marks. Against North Carolina on the aircraft carrier the other night Spartans not named "Draymond Green" shot 16-of-63 from the floor. And while Green shot just 6-of-19 himself, at least he was carrying the load as MSU's featured player (and hauling down 18 rebounds). He needs help. Izzo's team is playing an early-season schedule more suited to its storied (recent) past than its present status as a highly promising but still young team.

Florida at Ohio State
ESPN2, 8pm

              2011 margin  RPMs(%)   Who's New?
Florida          +0.12      56       Bradley Beal
Ohio St.         +0.16      66       Shannon Scott

The rematch of the 2007 national championship game should attract its fair share of NBA scouts. Between OSU's Jared Sullinger and Gators Bradley Beal and Patric Young, it's possible you're looking at three 2012 lottery picks conveniently assembled on one floor. I spent a portion of last year yelling and waving my arms in a largely futile attempt to get people to pay attention to Billy Donovan's team, but maybe Beal and Young can succeed where I failed. If you had to pick a D-I head coach to score the highest number of points per possession given a random sample of 12 D-I players, you'd look long and hard at Donovan. Unless of course you chose Thad Matta, whose teams have recorded what can only be termed absurd levels of accuracy from the field in two of the last three seasons. With all due respect to the undeniably stirring moments and amazing visuals supplied by the aircraft carrier game, this has the potential to be the best basketball contest of the year so far.

Kentucky vs. Kansas (at Madison Square Garden)
ESPN, 9pm

              2011 margin  RPMs(%)   Who's New?
Kentucky         +0.12      53       Anthony Davis, Marquis Teague, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist
Kansas           +0.17      32       Kevin Young, Naadir Tharpe

The nightcap in the State Farm Champions Classic is about as blue-chip as you can get: UK vs. KU. Give the edge to the Wildcats over the Jayhawks this time. With Terrence Jones, Doron Lamb, and Darius Miller returning from last year's Final Four team and Anthony Davis, Marquis Teague, and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist arriving as freshmen, John Calipari has Bill Self in a most unusual position. Kansas will be operating at a clear talent deficit relative to their opponent for the first time in a very long while. That being said, Thomas Robinson has it within his power to give Davis a much stiffer challenge in the paint than what the UK freshman faced against Marist the other night. That alone is worth staying up for, even as you near the end of this Marathon.

A version of this article originally appeared at ESPN Insider Insider.

John Gasaway is an author of Basketball Prospectus. You can contact John by clicking here or click here to see John's other articles.

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