College Basketball: The Five Best Matchups of the ESPN Tip-off Marathon

Andy WittryCorrespondent IAugust 12, 2013

College Basketball: The Five Best Matchups of the ESPN Tip-off Marathon

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    The start of the college basketball is still a few months away, but schedules and matchup are slowly being released throughout the offseason. Beginning at 11 p.m. on August 11, ESPN's Eamonn Brennan began releasing the matchups for the annual ESPN Tip-Off Marathon. The Tip-Off Marathon begins at 7 p.m. on November 11 and there will be games broadcasted consecutively on the network for more than 24 hours. 

    To make the marathon work, games will be played across the country and ESPN is using time zone differences to its full advantage. 

    The Tip-Off Marathon will feature title contenders (Duke, Kansas, Kentucky and Michigan State), some of last season's Cinderella teams (Florida Gulf Coast, La Salle and Wichita State) and every other type of team in between. 

    While most fans are unlikely to be up at a the crack of dawn to watch Hawaii host New Mexico State, there are a number of intriguing matchups to be played on November 11 and 12. 

    The headliners are obviously the two Champions Classic games: Kentucky-Michigan State and Duke-Kansas. 

    Each of the four teams in the Champions Classic will have played each other in the event after this season, which is the third year of the Classic. With four of the best programs in college basketball competing in the Champions Classic, there are destined to be compelling matchups every year. 

    The Champions Classic website acknowledges that the 2011 games included Mike Krzyzewski breaking Bob Knight's NCAA Division I men's basketball all-time wins record as well as a preview of that year's championship game with the Kentucky-Kansas matchup. 

    This year's Champions Classic games will be filled with compelling story lines, highly touted prospects and very good basketball. 

    Here are the five best games in the ESPN Tip-Off Marathon based on how the teams performed last season, the players returning and the strength of their 2013 recruiting classes. 

5. Western Kentucky at Wichita State

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    The Shockers are coming off the heels of their run to the Final Four last spring, and it's time for them to try to build off of last season. Wichita State's best player, senior forward Cleanthony Early, returned to school in hope of another tournament run. However, Wichita State will have to move on without Carl Hall and Malcolm Armstead, who averaged a combined 23 points and 10 rebounds per game last season

    Creighton has moved to the Big East, which means that Wichita State has a chance to assert its dominance in the Missouri Valley. The Shockers' game against Western Kentucky will be their first time in the national spotlight since April.

    The Hilltoppers are no slouches, even though WKU isn't known for its basketball. In their opening matchup in last year's NCAA tournament, they were beating Kansas with 18 minutes left in the game and only lost by seven to the Jayhawks. 

    Western Kentucky's leading scorers, T.J. Price and George Fant, will be juniors this season. The duo averaged 28 points and 11 rebounds per game last season. WKU lost only two seniors to graduation from last year's team that went 20-16, which means that the Hilltoppers could be chosen on selection Sunday next spring. 

4. North Carolina State at Cincinnati

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    Both North Carolina State and Cincinnati had early NCAA tournament exits last season. The two schools each lost by four points in their first matchups. 

    The Wolfpack lost most of its star players to graduation, the NBA or another school via transfer. Sophomore forward T.J. Warren will lead the new-look North Carolina State team along with the nation's 13th best recruiting class that Mark Gottfried assembled. Five freshmen will join the Wolfpack this season, and three of them (point guard Anthony Barber, center BeeJay Anya and power forward Kyle Washington) are in ESPN's top 100 players of the 2013 class

    The Cincinnati Bearcats lost three key players--guard Cashmere Wright, center Cheikh Mbodj and guard JaQuon Parker--to graduation following last season. However, UC brings back its leading scorer, Sean Kilpatrick, who averaged 17 points per game last season. Senior forwards Titus Rubles and Justin Jackson, as well as junior guard Jeremiah Davis III will have to step up this season for Cincinnati to make it back to the NCAA tournament. The Bearcats have the 24th best 2013 recruiting class, which is led by power forward Jermaine Lawrence

    Cincinnati and North Carolina State lost several starters from last year's squads. They hope that their top 25 recruiting classes are enough to make it further in the NCAA tournament next year than they did last season. 

3. Florida at Wisconsin

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    The Florida-Wisconsin matchup will be overshadowed because it falls in between the Kentucky-Michigan State and Duke-Kansas games, but it is certainly a treat for college basketball fans. Florida and Wisconsin are two programs that are consistently good. 

    Florida won the national championship in 2006 and 2007 and the Gators have made the Elite Eight for three consecutive seasons. 

    Wisconsin has made the NCAA tournament every year since 1999. 

    Florida will be led by senior center Patric Young, who averaged 10.1 points and 6.3 rebounds per game last season. The Gators also have two of the top 12 2013 recruits, per ESPN. Point guard Kasey Hill and power forward Chris Walker are five-star recruits who made Billy Donovan's two-player freshmen class the 10th best in the country. 

    Wisconsin returns its leading scorer, Ben Brust, who averaged more than 11 points and five rebounds per game last season. The Badgers also have sophomore Sam Dekker, who could be ready for a breakout season after averaging more than nine points and three rebounds per game in 2012-13. 

    The Badgers' top incoming freshman is power forward Nigel Hayes, who was ranked 83rd overall in the country by ESPN. Wisconsin's five-player freshman class is ranked 32nd in the country. 

    These schools played in November last season and Florida won at home by 18. Now it's Wisconsin's turn to have home-court advantage and try to pick up a key non-conference win. 

2. Duke vs. Kansas

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    The two incoming freshmen with the most hype will get to square off at this year's Champions Classic. Jabari Parker and the Duke Blue Devils will challenge Andrew Wiggins and the Kansas Jayhawks. 

    While Parker and Wiggins will get most of the attention, other highly ranked recruits will get the chance to make a name for themselves on a national stage.

    Kansas also has the top center prospect in Joel Embiid (ranked 6th overall by ESPN), small forward Wayne Selden (ranked 14th overall by ESPN), point guard Conner Frankamp (46th nationally) and shooting guard Brannen Greene (47th nationally).

    Duke also signed Matt Jones (36th nationally) and Semi Ojeleye (40th nationally). 

    The Blue Devils also return starting guards Quinn Cook and Rasheed Sulaimon, who both averaged more than 11 points per game last season. 

    Kansas lost all five starters from last season, but the Jayhawks return Perry Ellis and Naadir Tharpe, who were the team's best bench players. 

    Both teams reloaded on talent and they are poised to make deep tournament runs this season. 

1. Kentucky vs. Michigan State

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    After Kentucky's fourth-place finish in the SEC last season, John Calipari is bringing the best recruiting class in the country for 2013 to Lexington, and it includes six players in the top 25 spots of ESPN's top 100 players. 

    The Wildcats also return Alex Poythress and Willie Cauley-Stein, who were both ranked in the top 40 players of the 2012 class by ESPN

    UK will likely begin the season as the No. 1 team in the country and the Wildcats are ready to turn the page after their season-ending loss to Robert Morris in the first round of the NIT. 

    Michigan State doesn't have a single 2013 recruit ranked in the top 100 players by ESPN, but the Spartans are returning four starters from last year's team that advanced to the Sweet 16. Michigan State will be led by senior point guard Keith Appling, star shooting guard Gary Harris and senior forward Adreian Payne. Tom Izzo has the roster to make his seventh final four at Michigan State.

    This may be the best test of the regular season for both teams, and it comes in November rather than in conference play.