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Breaking down Tip-Off Marathon’s schedule: Snoozers until an epic nightcap

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ESPN (slowly) released the schedule for their now-annual College Hoops Tip-Off Marathon on Monday afternoon, and — quite frankly — the first 12 hours or so weren’t exactly worth the wait.

But the last four hours?

Look out.

After a full 24 hours worth of basketball — the marathon technically starts at 7 p.m. the night before — we get the season’s first installment of College Gameday, as the ESPN crew heads to the United Center for one could end up being the best double-header of hoops we get all season long.

It starts with a 7:30 p.m. (all times Eastern) tip with Michigan State taking on Kentucky, who just may be the two best teams in the country heading into the 2013-2014 season. Kentucky brings in their all-world recruiting class that could end up sending seven players into the first round of the 2014 NBA Draft. Michigan State brought back both Gary Harris and Adreian Payne, both of whom are potential lottery picks, putting the Spartans right back into the national title conversation.

Coach Cal’s talent vs. Tom Izzo’s game-planning. Yes, please.

And it may not even be the most memorable game of the night, as the nightcap of the Marathon pits Kansas against Duke. The Jayhawks were thought to be an afterthought heading into the year, as their lineup is as young on paper as anyone in the country. That all changed when Kansas got, ironically enough, younger with Andrew Wiggins’ commitment. That single talent rocketed them up preseason top 25’s, and created all kinds of intrigue as the Jayhawks get set to take on Coach K’s Blue Devils.

Duke will have plenty of talent, with Rodney Hood eligible and Rasheed Sulaimon back, but the headlining matchup will likely end up being Jabari Parker, who was labeled the best prospect since LeBron by Sports Illustrated, against Wiggins.

Bill Self and Wiggins vs. Coach K and Parker? This could be epic.

That’s not all, however, as ESPN will also be airing two more intriguing matchups. At 7 p.m., VCU will be taking on Virginia in one of the biggest contrasts in styles we will see this season. VCU runs ‘Havoc’, a full-court pressing system designed around steals, layups and threes. Virginia, on the other hand, wants to play as slowly as possible, packing in their defense and running 30 seconds off the clock every possession. To make things more intriguing, Shaka Smart and Tony Bennett coached together on the U19 team this summer.

When that game ends, Florida will be taking on Wisconsin, a tip that is scheduled for 9 p.m. The Gators are going to be a contender for the SEC title regardless of whether Chris Walker gets eligible, but Wisconsin should be pretty good next season as well. Expect a big year out of Sam Dekker.

That’s how the Marathon ends.

It starts the night before, with a 7 p.m. game between one of the stronger program’s in the MAC, Kent State, taking on a Temple team that will be in rebuilding mode in their first season in the AAC. That is followed up by a depleted Colorado State team squaring off with Gonzaga, who likely cost themselves at least five years of preseason hype by flaming out in the Round of 32 after earning a No. 1 seed last March.

The marathon officially starts at 11 p.m., with BYU heading down to Palo Alto to take on Stanford. The Cougars have one of the best scorers in the country in Tyler Haws, who averaged more than 20 points last season despite missing two years on his Mormon mission, while Stanford’s talent seems to have finally matured enough to make a run at an NCAA tournament berth.

That game will be followed by Western Kentucky visiting Wichita State, a 1 a.m. tip — midnight local time — between a loaded Shocker team coming off of a Final Four run and a Hilltopper team that has twice captured lightening in a bottle, winning the Sun Belt automatic bid the past two seasons. There is some intrigue there, although I fully expect Gregg Marshall’s team to walk all over WKU.

And then things get a bit methodical. It’s tough to find teams willing to play at all hours of the night, you know?

Akron visits Marathon stalwart St. Mary’s at 3 a.m., a game that would have been much more enticing before Matthew Dellavedova and Zeke Marshall graduated. New Mexico State visits Hawaii at 5 a.m., which may only be watchable for a repeat of this overpowering drop-step from 7-foot-5 Sim Bhullar:

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The 7 a.m. tip will feature Hartford visiting Andy Enfield-less Florida-Gulf Coast, entertaining only if #DunkCity gets their coffee. That’s followed by another NCAA tournament darling, La Salle, hosting Quinnipiac at 9 a.m.

LSU-UMass at 11 a.m. has a chance to be a game with major bubble implications, and the Minutemen have one of the most entertaining guards in the country to watch in Chaz Williams. The 1 p.m. tip doesn’t have quite as much going for it, as West Virginia — who finished below .500 last year and lost what seems like half their roster to transfer — takes on a Virginia Tech team that was a (bad) one-man show a year ago and lost that one-man, Erick Green.

South Carolina at Baylor at 3 p.m. could be interesting if Frank Martin’s talented recruiting class can have an immediate impact, but the talent infusion seems like more of a long-term play. Isaiah Austin and Cory Jefferson should be too much to handle.

At 5 p.m., NC State will visit Cincinnati in a relatively forgettable matchup between two teams that will be in a bit of a rebuilding mode. The Bearcats will rely quite heavily on Sean Kilpatrick this season as they try to make the tournament out of the AAC, while NC State is coming off a massively disappointing 2012-2013 season in which they lost CJ Leslie, Lorenzo Brown, Richard Howell and Scott Wood.

Self pays freshman Jackson a major compliment

Josh Jackson, from Napa, Calif.,, dunks over Nancy Mulkey, from Cypress, Texas, as he competes in the slam dunk contest during the McDonald's All-American Jam Fest, Monday, March 28, 2016, in Chicago. (AP Photo/Matt Marton)
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Freshman phenom production under Bill Self has been something of a contentious topic. Many fault the coach, who has won one national title and 12-straight Big 12 championships, for not developing one-and-done talent to their fullest potential during their single-season stays in Lawrence. Cliff Alexander and Cheick Diallo are Exhibit 1-A and 1-B for this argument in recent years.

Whatever outside criticism there is (Andrew Wiggins did go No. 1 overall just 2 years ago, after all), Self isn’t shying away from hyping the latest freshman with big expectations to come to KU. When asked who the greatest athlete of all-time is at the school’s annual Tradition Night last week, Self had a simple, if tongue-and-cheek, response.

“I’ll say Josh Jackson,” Self said of the the 6-foot-8 shooting guard ranked No. 1 in his class, according to Lawrence Journal-World.

With others answering with the likes of Michael Jordan and Muhammed Ali, it’s pretty fair to say Self was playing to the crowd with the answer, but it’s still telling that he was willing to deliver such a sound bite, even if it was before a welcoming audience. Self didn’t try to seriously depress expectations for Wiggins, a player Jackson is often compared to, and it looks like he won’t for Jackson as well.

Jackson, though, won’t have the burden Wiggins had as there’s one of the country’s best backcourts in Frank Mason II and Devonte Graham to help shoulder the workload for the Jayhawks.

 

ACC non-commital on HB2 stance

John Swofford
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With North Carolina unwilling to rescind their controversial so-called bathroom bill, the NBA has withdrawn its All-Star Game from the state this year and numerous high-profile music acts have canceled performances as a result.

The ACC is declining to join them with a hard-line, or really any, position.

“We don’t want to damage our league with any premature decisions,” commissioner John Swofford said on The David Glenn Show. “We’ll just see how it plays out.”

The ACC, of course, has quite the presence in the state with North Carolina, N.C. State, Duke and Wake Forest all in the Tar Heel State. Swofford’s comments are sure to draw the interest of the LGBT community, which has roundly been critical of the bill, which requires people to use the bathroom which corresponds to the gender on their birth certificate, and has recently been active in college athletics, opposing the Big 12’s potential inclusion of BYU in its expansion plans over concerns of the Church of Latter Day Saints school’s honor code.

North Carolina’s bill has also drawn the eye of the NCAA, which is requiring potential championship sights to provide information on local anti-discrimination laws.

One of the loudest voices in the ACC, Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski, has come out against the law.

“It’s an embarrassing bill,” Coach K said last month.

The Champions Classic renewed through 2019

LAWRENCE, KS - FEBRUARY 27: Bill Self head coach of the Kansas Jayhawks claps for his team as they celebrate winning the Big 12 Conference Championship after they defeated Texas Tech Red Raiders 67-58 at Allen Fieldhouse on February 27, 2016 in Lawrence, Kansas. With the win, Kansas clinched its 12th straight conference championship. (Photo by Ed Zurga/Getty Images)
Ed Zurga/Getty Images
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The Champions Classic is back, baby!!!

On Wednesday, the four schools that participate in the event — Kentucky, Duke, Kansas and Michigan State — announced that they have signed deals to extend the life of the doubleheader for another three years.

This is terrific news. The Champions Classic is always the best early-season event of the season, an annual double-header that always ends up putting together two of the best non-conference games in packed NBA arenas. This year, it features Duke, the consensus preseason No. 1 team in the country, squaring off with Kansas, who is a consensus top three team with the No. 1 freshman in the class, Josh Jackson, on their roster, in one game.

The other game? Kentucky, the third consensus top three team nationally, going up against Tom Izzo and Michigan State, who will be, at worst, a top 15 team in the preseason polls.

So yeah, we’re going to get a pair of sensational basketball games in Madison Square Garden on Nov. 15th. MSG also just so happens to be the best arena to watch a great neutral site basketball game.

It’s going to be awesome.

There’s only one possible way to make it better: turn it into a two-day event, with the winners squaring off for the Champions Classic title the following night.

Make it happen.

Anyway, here’s the schedule:

Nov. 14, 2017 (United Center, Chicago)
Kansas vs. Kentucky
Duke vs. Michigan State

Nov. 13, 2018 (Bankers Life Fieldhouse, Indianapolis)
Michigan State vs. Kansas
Duke vs. Kentucky

Nov. 12, 2019 (Madison Square Garden, New York)
Kansas vs. Duke
Michigan State vs. Kentucky

Hartford makes smart decision to allow ‘Pancake’ Thomas transfer

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Hartford coach John Gallagher, AP Photo
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Another talented graduate transfer has hit the market.

Cleveland ‘Pancake’ Thomas — that’s a helluva name, isn’t it? — has been granted a release by Hartford and will be allowed to transfer to another program for his fifth season.

“Our biggest priority for Cleveland was that he graduate from the University of Hartford with a valuable degree,” Hartford head coach John Gallagher said in a statement released to ESPN after some speculation that Thomas wasn’t going to be given a release. “That happened. Beyond wishing him the very best, we don’t comment on other program’s players. We are very excited about our group and the upcoming season.”

The term “release” is needed here because Thomas, a 6-foot-3 guard who averaged 18.9 points and shot 42.6 percent from three this past season, spent his first two years of eligibility at New Mexico. A graduate transfer exception is granted to any player making their first transfer after receiving an undergraduate degree. But since Pancake had already transferred once, he was only eligible to apply for a graduate transfer waiver, which the school he is leaving must support.

Remember the saga of Todd O’Brien? He tried to leave St. Joseph’s to spend his fifth-year at UAB but made headlines everywhere when Phil Martelli wouldn’t let it happen? That’s because O’Brien had started his career at Bucknell and needed Martelli to support the waiver.

Gallagher could have done the same to Pancake.

He made the right decision not to — Martelli has enough coaching cache to withstand the onslaught on criticism he received, I’m not sure that is true for Gallagher — even if it will result in Thomas playing elsewhere, hence the cold-hearted nature of that statement.

Anyway, Thomas never averaged more than 3.9 points at New Mexico, so while he’s a tantalizing prospect for programs that are dying for perimeter depth and shooting, this isn’t exactly a kid that’s going to launch himself into the NBA Draft’s first round by jumping up to a higher level.

Shawn Forrest named assistant coach for Jankovich at SMU

LAS VEGAS, NV - DECEMBER 22:  Head coach Larry Brown (L) and associate head coach Tim Jankovich of the Southern Methodist Mustangs look on during the team's game against the Kent State Golden Flashes during the 2015 Continental Tire Las Vegas Classic basketball tournament at the Orleans Arena on December 22, 2015 in Las Vegas, Nevada. Southern Methodist won 90-74. The game marks Brown's return from a nine-game suspension.  (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)
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DALLAS (AP) Shawn Forrest has been named an assistant basketball coach at SMU, his third school since the end of last season.

Mustangs coach Tim Jankovich announced Forrest’s hiring Tuesday.

Forrest spent the past three seasons as an assistant at Western Kentucky before head coach Ray Harper resigned. Forrest was named a UTSA assistant in May, but two weeks later left for Louisiana Tech before the unexpected opening at SMU.

Jankovich was SMU’s associate head coach before the abrupt resignation last month of Hall of Fame coach Larry Brown. Forrest fills the open assistant spot created on the staff when Jankovich was promoted to head coach.

Before Western Kentucky, Forrest was an assistant coach at Louisiana-Lafayette, North Texas, Arkansas State and Florida A&M.