A Viewer’s Guide to the Tip-Off Marathon

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ESPN’s annual Tip-Off Marathon begins tonight at 7:00 p.m. (all time Eastern), so in an effort to get you prepared, we at CBT will be giving you a handy guide to help you schedule out the next 29 hours of your life.

You’re welcome.

ONLY MISS THESE GAMES FOR THE BIRTH OF YOUR FIRST CHILD:

The Champions Classic, Tue. 7:30 p.m.  (ESPN): Don’t know what the Champions Classic is? Have you been living under a rock?

The last two years, Duke, Michigan State, Kentucky and Kansas have participated in an event during the first week of the season where the four teams will show up in a city and play a double-header. The matchups rotate every year, and this season, they are just ridiculous, and the perfect way to cap the Tip-Off Marathon.

No. 1 Kentucky takes on No. 2 Michigan State at 7:30 p.m., which is obviously awesome since it pits No. 1 against No. 2. But there’s more intrigue here. Kentucky is obscenely talented, but they are chock full of freshmen and sophomores. The Spartans aren’t quite as talented, but they have veterans up and down their lineup. Who wins out?

It wouldn’t be fair to call that game the undercard, but the nightcap will just about match the first game in terms of hype. No. 4 Duke takes on No. 5 Kansas, which is thrilling in its own right before you consider that Jabari Parker will be returning to him hometown to take on Andrew Wiggins, the freshmen who usurped his standing as the No. 1 recruit in the Class of 2013.

DVR IS ACCEPTABLE, BUT MAKE SURE YOU WATCH LATER ON:

No. 14 VCU at No. 25 Virginia, Tue. 7:00 p.m. (ESPN2): Talk about a contrast of styles. VCU is notorious for their Havoc defense, a 40-minute full-court assault on opposing ball-handlers. The Rams abused Illinois State in their opener, but they’ll have a much tougher task with the Cavs on Tuesday night. Virginia is a sleeper in the ACC, a team with two of the most underrated players in the country in Joe Harris and Akil Mitchell. The issue is that Virginia is working through incorporating a new point guard into their rotation after Jontel Evans graduated. That won’t be an easy gig against Shaka Smart’s boys.

No. 11 Florida at No. 20 Wisconsin, Tue. 9:00 p.m. (ESPN2): Florida gets their first real test of the season, but the Gators will once again be short-handed as they deal with suspensions and injuries early on this season. The Badgers certainly challenged themselves early this season, as they already knocked off St. John’s on Friday night. As good as these two programs are, the stars from Friday’s openers were relative no-names: Casey Prather popped off for 28 points against North Florida while Duje Dukan had 15 big points for Wisconsin.

BYU at Stanford, Mon. 11:00 p.m. (ESPN): BYU has one of the nation’s best scorers in Tyler Haws, who is a pleasure to watch if you are a hoops snob like your truly. A 6-foot-3 off-guard, Haws is one of the best players in the country at running off of screens and moving without the ball. The Cougars are a fun team to watch in general as they love to get out and run the floor. Stanford actually has a chance to be a contender in the Pac-12 this season, as they returned a balanced and talented roster from a season. The combination of big man Dwight Powell and lead guard Chasson Randle have yet to churn out the wins that Cardinal fans expected.

FIRE UP ESPN3 AT WORK FOR:

LSU at UMass, Tue. 11:00 a.m. (ESPN2): One of the most sneaky-good games of the first week of the season. LSU should be much-improved this season, with Anthony Hickey and Johnny O’Bryant being joined by a talented recruiting class for Johnny Jones. UMass is an Atlantic 10 contender, however, led by Chaz Williams, who is one of the most entertaining guards in the country.

N.C. State at Cincinnati, Tue. 5:00 p.m. (ESPN): The Wolfpack are an intriguing team to keep an eye on this season. A slimmed-down T.J. Warren could end up being the ACC’s leading scorer this season, and Cat Barber and Tyler Lewis make up for a fun-to-watch back court. But can Mark Gottfried get this group to win games? They’ll have a tough test at Cincinnati, a team that is led by Sena Kilpatrick and has become known for their physicality and toughness.

MAKE A POT OF COFFEE SO YOU CAN STAY UP FOR:

Colorado State at No. 18 Gonzaga, Mon. 9:00 p.m. (ESPN): Colorado State was a contender in the Mountain West the past couple of seasons, but they’ll be rebuilding this year after losing their top six players to graduation. The Zags lost Kelly Olynyk and Elias Harris, but with Kevin Pangos back and Sam Dower finally getting a chance up front, this group could surprise some folks.

Western Kentucky at No. 13 Wichita State, Tue. 1:00 a.m. (ESPN): The Hilltoppers have been to back-to-back NCAA tournaments and return enough talent that they should compete for the Sun Belt title. But the Shockers are coming off of a run to the Final Four and enter the season with a ton of hype. Can Cleanthony Early and Ron Baker impress in their reintroduction to the nation?

NCAA TOURNAMENT DARLINGS ON DISPLAY:

Wichita State isn’t the only team coming off of an NCAA tournament run to be playing a showcase game during the marathon. Florida-Gulf Coast gets a visit from Hartford at 7:00 a.m. Tuesday morning, a game that will be followed up by Quinnipiac tripping to Philly to take on La Salle at 9:00 a.m.

NAPS ARE ACCEPTABLE DURING:

  • Kent State at Temple, Mon. 7:00 p.m. (ESPN)
  • Akron at Saint Mary’s, Tue. 3:00 a.m. (ESPN)
  • New Mexico State at Hawaii, Tue. 5:00 a.m. (ESPN)
  • West Virginia at Virginia Tech, Tues. 1:00 p.m. (ESPN)
  • South Carolina at No. 23 Baylor, 3:00 p.m. (ESPN)

Elite 8 Preview: Sunday’s picks, predictions, betting lines and channels

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No. 4 FLORIDA (-3) vs. No. 7 SOUTH CAROLINA, 2:20 p.m., CBS: If you’re a fan of uptempo, wide-open basketball, of teams running beautiful offensive sets, spreading the floor and using the three-point line like it should be used, this game probably is not going to be for you.

This is going to be as physical and as tough as any game you watched all season long. Both the Gamecocks and the Gators are top five teams in defensive efficiency, and both of them get out and pressure defensively, Florida in the full court and South Carolina in the half court. They shun shooters for the toughest athletes on their roster. They pride themselves in being tougher, both mentally and physically, than whoever they end up playing.

And they think that a game played in the 50s is beautiful basketball.

So bet the under if you can.

But the pick I like is Florida here. Their ability to defend is going to make it very difficult for South Carolina’s offensive renaissance to continue, and their guards will be able to make the plays offensively that South Carolina dares you to make.

PREDICTION: Florida (-3)

No. 1 NORTH CAROLINA (-2.5) vs. No. 2 KENTUCKY, 5:05 p.m. CBS: This is the rematch we all wanted, right?

Ever since that day three months ago, when Kentucky got 47 points from Malik Monk in a 103-102 win over North Carolina in Las Vegas, I don’t think there is a soul in the country that would have told you otherwise.

There are two major differences between these two teams now and those two teams then. The biggest is the presence of Theo Pinson, North Carolina’s best perimeter defender. Pinson has dealt foot injuries all season long, and when these two got together in December, he was not yet healthy enough to play. I assume that he will draw the assignment of Malik Monk, chasing around the man that had definitively been Kentucky’s most dangerous scorer. Pinson will make life more difficult for Monk than it was the first time around.

But is he going to spend the entire game on him?

Because after De’Aaron Fox’s 39-point outburst against UCLA on Friday night, it’s fair to wonder whether or not Pinson may be better suited to taking on the task of keeping Fox from getting into the paint. Whatever Roy Williams opts to do, the bottom line is pretty simple — if he needs to find a way to keep Kentucky’s back court in check.

The other difference between now and then is that Bam Adebayo has been playing up to his potential for the past six weeks. He was solid earlier in the year. He can be dominant at times now, and that is going to be critical for the Wildcats, who are going to be outsized by a significant margin by UNC’s front line. The Tar Heels lead the nation in offensive rebounding percentage, and they are one of the only elite teams that thrives playing two bigs at the same time. In other words, one of Wenyen Gabriel or Derek Willis are going to have to deal with Isaiah Hicks, Kennedy Meeks and Tony Bradley. That’s a matchup that favors UNC, which is why Aebayo is going to have to play up to his size.

In the end, I think Pinson’s presence and North Carolina’s size advantage will be too much.

But if Fox and Monk play their game, they can carry Kentucky a long, long way.

PREDICTION: North Carolina (2.5)

Lawrence Police Department trolls Bill Self following Elite Eight loss

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Kansas had its season ended with a 74-60 loss to No. 3 seed Oregon.

The Jayhawks were the top seed in the South region. They were playing a de facto at the Sprint Center, which is 40 miles away from the school’s campus. As you can imagine, fans in Lawrence were likely unhappy, especially since it’s the second year in a row KU has been bounced one-game shy of the Final Four.

The Lawrence Police Department, while prepping for potential riots, couldn’t help tweeting a joke at the future Hall of Famer’s expense.

Bill Self’s teams have been eliminated seven times in the Elite Eight during his tenure at Kansas. He’s led the Jayhawks to a pair of Final Fours, winning the national championship in 2008.

Kansas finished the season 31-5.

Gonzaga passes the title of best program without a Final Four to Xavier in win

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In 1999, Gonzaga was not yet “Gonzaga”.

A No. 10 seed in just their third NCAA tournament, the Zags won three games against high-major competition, coming within a possession of reaching the Final Four in a loss to No. 1 seed UConn.

UConn, at that point, was one of the best programs in the country under Jim Calhoun, but the knock on the Huskies at that point was that they couldn’t win the big one. They had been to three Elite 8s and three more Sweet 16s in the previous eight seasons, but it wasn’t until they knocked off that Gonzaga team that they finally were playing on college basketball’s biggest stage.

For 18 years, Gonzaga tried and failed to get to a Final Four, becoming one of the nation’s premier basketball programs without having the postseason success to legitimize themselves in the eyes of idiots around the country. That ended on Saturday night in San Jose, as No. 1 seed Gonzaga ended No. 11 Xavier’s thrilling run to the Elite 8 and passing on the torch that UConn passed to them.

Xavier can now claim the title of the best basketball program that has yet to make a Final Four, which is both a compliment and a curse.

The Musketeers have been to the NCAA tournament 25 times since the bracket expanded to 64 teams in 1985. They’ve been to nine Sweet 16s and three Elite 8s. They had a winning record in NCAA tournament play until Saturday’s loss and now lay claim to the title of the team with the most NCAA tournament wins without an appearance in the Final Four.

Xavier is going to get there eventually. Chris Mack is one of the best coaches in the business. Hell, if Trevon Bluiett and Edmond Sumner both return to school, it could very well be next season that they snap that streak. It’s coming at some point.

I don’t even think it’s an insult to say this about Xavier. I don’t think it’s a shot at the program or the coaches that have come through it. Getting to the Final Four is hard. Bill Self is a lead-pipe lock to be a Hall of Famer, and he’s been to just two Final Fours in his career. He’s 2-7 in the Elite 8, and if Derrick Rose could make his free throws, the discussion of just how good of a coach Self is if he can’t win a title would be raging with the Jayhawks flaming out of the tournament on Saturday night.

But as with Gonzaga and UConn before them, Xavier is going to have that monkey on their back every time they suit up in March.

VIDEO: Tyler Dorsey hits dagger after dagger in upset of Kansas

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Tyler Dorsey is building himself quite the reputation for being a big-shot maker.

He hit the game-winner that got Oregon to the Sweet 16. He hit two threes at the end of the first half to push Oregon’s lead to 11 points over Kansas. And he hit this three, the dagger through the heart of Kansas:

Dorsey finished with 27 points. He’s scored at least 20 points in every game since the NCAA tournament began.

No. 3 Oregon heading to first Final Four in 78 years

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Oregon, the No. 3 seed in the Midwest region, made what looked to be a smooth path to Phoenix into a bumpy road. But after 78 years, the Ducks are going back to the Final Four, defeating No. 1 Kansas, 74-60, in Elite Eight on Friday night in Kansas City.

Everything went right for the Ducks in the first half. Josh Jackson was called for two fouls in the less than three minutes. The Jayhawks were limited in transition. Tyler Dorsey’s two 3-pointers in the final 40 seconds gave them a double-digit lead at halftime. Oregon stretched it to as many as 18 in the second. Kansas couldn’t buy a basket from three (a far cry from the 3-point barrage it put on Purdue two nights earlier). When the Jayhawks drove to the basket, it was Jordan Bell (11 points, 13 rebounds and eight blocks) who either blocked or altered their shots.

However, the Ducks not only left the door open for the Jayhawks, they held it open. Kansas’ comeback attempt was a mix drink that was equal parts KU putting the clamps on defensively, Oregon playing a bit of hero ball, and the Ducks playing not to lose instead of to win. Up six with less than two minutes remaining, Dorsey (27 points) buried a dagger 3-pointer that all but sealed the win — and a spot in next week’s Final Four — for the Ducks.

Oregon will play the winner of the South region, which will either be No. 1 North Carolina or No. 2 Kentucky on Saturday.

The slogan of the NCAA Tournament is “The Road to the Final Four”.

Outside of Duke, the runaway preseason favorite, and it’s months-long narrative of “Is Duke back?”, you could make the case there wasn’t a Final Four contender with a journey filled with more ups and downs than Oregon.

Weeks following a season-ending loss to Oklahoma in the Elite Eight, Oregon learned that both Dillon Brooks and Tyler Dorsey would return to school for the next season. In July, Dylan Ennis was granted a sixth-year of eligibility. With Chris Boucher and Jordan Bell returning, and Payton Pritchard joining the program, the Ducks were an easy choice for a preseason Final Four pick.

Brooks’ offseason foot surgery — and the recovery that followed — raised concern about whether or not Oregon could fully reach its preseason potential, entering conference play without a notable win. Brooks’ Pac-12 Player of the Year season put to rest the status of his foot, leading the Ducks to a 16-2 Pac-12 record.

Hours before Oregon was set to battle with Arizona, it was announced that Chris Boucher had torn his ACL and would be out for the remainder of the season. Not only could this have played a role in the team’s seeding by the selection committee, but Boucher offered more than rim protection, as he helped space the floor given his ability to step out and shoot from the perimeter.

After fending off a good fight from Iona, the Ducks looked to be part of a Rhode Island’s magical postseason run. Tyler Dorsey ended that. In the Sweet 16, Oregon was matchup with Michigan, dubbed as the team of destiny. Bell and Dorsey, Oregon’s two tournament stars, stepped up in critical moments once again. Slated as an underdog for the second straight game, Oregon proved its Final Four worth by handing Kansas its worst tournament defeat of the Bill Self era in a regional final game that was played 40 miles away from the KU campus.

“I’m happy for our team,” Oregon head coach Dana Altman said following the game. “I’m happy for, as I mentioned, our university and our state. It’s been a long time coming and now we just need to go continue to play well.”

For Oregon, its road to the Final Four has come full circle.