For 24 consecutive hours, 16 games will air across ESPN’s networks/platforms Tuesday in the 2012 ESPN Tip-Off Marathon. It’s a succulent sampler for the college basketball fans who’ve nibbled on classics and DVR’d games from 2011-12 to satisfy their hoops cravings for the past seven months (I got my fix from 1980s national title matchups available on the NCAA’s website).
Get your popcorn ready, grab a few cans of your favorite energy drink and assemble your crew. Here are 24 questions to consider as you prepare for the marathon (aka paradise):
1. Will Michigan State open with two losses again? Last season, the Spartans secured a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament after losing their first two games (against North Carolina and Duke). The Spartans won 29 games in 2011-12. But this season’s squad, sans Draymond Green, seemed so listless and timid in its Friday loss to Connecticut that a similar effort and loss against Kansas could sound alarms in East Lansing.
2. How will Kentucky youngsters handle the spotlight? John Calipari’s latest crop of lottery picks who are temporarily donning college basketball uniforms performed flawlessly in stretches against Maryland on Friday. But a late surge by the Terrapins clearly –- and understandably –- rattled the young team, which still showcased its resilience by securing the win. A matchup against Duke in the Champions Classic in Atlanta will test the Wildcats’ poise again.
3. Will Gonzaga beat the Big 12? The Bulldogs’ home matchup against Big 12 newcomer West Virginia is its first of four nonconference games against that league (West Virginia, Kansas State, Baylor and Oklahoma State). It’s a significant slate for a Gonzaga squad that hopes to regain its WCC title and finally get back to the Sweet 16. Wins against the Mountaineers and the rest of the Big 12 would pay dividends on Selection Sunday.
4. Has Steve Alford’s team been overlooked in the Mountain West? The Lobos lost last season’s leader when Drew Gordon entered the NBA draft. But three starters, including Tony Snell (10.5 ppg), return for a New Mexico team that earned a share of the Mountain West title in 2011-12. Gordon’s absence creates a void inside, but redshirt sophomore Alex Kirk could fill it. A victory over Davidson, one of the top mid-majors in the country, could put the league on alert.
5. Will Hawaii attract better talent in the Big West? Yes, Hawaii has great weather. But the school struggles to lure elite talent. Its move to the Big West could change that. Most of the league’s programs are in California, a five-hour flight from Hawaii. That’s short compared to some of its past road trips in the WAC. Hawaii, which faces Houston Baptist in the Tip-Off Marathon, could attract more West Coast talent if it’s successful in its new conference.
6. Does Duke have/need a star to beat the Wildcats? We’ve identified the potential stars on Calipari’s roster. It’s still too early to know, however, if Duke has any star power in 2012-13. The Blue Devils certainly have multiple candidates who could supplant Austin Rivers as the program’s top playmaker: Mason Plumlee, Seth Curry and Rasheed Sulaimon. One of those players could snatch that role in the Champions Classic battle against Kentucky.
7. How will Valparaiso perform against Northern Illinois with a healthy Kevin Van Wijk? There were a lot of questions about Valparaiso’s prospects after the standout underwent offseason knee surgery. But his performance against Georgia Southern (16 points) in his team’s season opener suggested that he’s healthier than most realized. That’s clearly a good sign for a Crusaders squad that needs to build momentum -- and give Van Wijk more reps so he can continue to work on his postsurgery mobility -- prior to the start of Horizon League play.
8. Are Kansas State and West Virginia underrated? Both teams enter the Marathon with something to prove. A West Virginia upset over Gonzaga and a Kansas State victory over North Texas (if both win their preseason NIT matchups Monday) wouldn’t change projections within the Big 12. It’s Kansas, Baylor and Oklahoma State (in that order) at the top of the league, and many questions after that. But strong starts by West Virginia and Kansas State in a pair of challenging matchups in the Tip-Off could insert both teams into the conversation about the league’s hierarchy.
9. Who has the best name for a Marathon? There’s Demetrius Walker (New Mexico). Temple has Scootie Randall. Butler’s Chase Stigall and Kentucky’s Brian Long deserve consideration, too. So does Xavier’s James Farr. Michigan’s Spike Albrecht would supply the shoes.
10. How will Harvard recover? Tommy Amaker’s squad looked like the clear favorite to win the Ivy League for the second consecutive season before top talents Brandyn Curry and Kyle Casey will miss the season following an academic scandal in the offseason. There’s certainly enough talent on Amaker''s roster to compete for the conference title again. A victory against Atlantic 10 contender Massachusetts would prove it.
11. Is Rotnei Clarke worthy of the hype? The Arkansas transfer averaged 15.2 ppg in 2010-11 and sat out last season per NCAA transfer rules. He scored 21 points (5-for-10 from beyond the arc) in his team’s season-opening win over Elon. So far, he’s justified the preseason buzz surrounding his Butler debut. Let’s see how he handles the Cintas Center, where the Bulldogs will face Xavier on the road.
12. What will a healthy Steve Lavin do with a talented St. John’s squad? Lavin is back on the sideline for St. John’s after missing most of 2011-12 recovering from cancer surgery. Today, Lavin says he’s cancer-free and expects to coach the duration of the season. It’s an opportune time for the program, which welcomes a talented group of newcomers. Tuesday’s game against Horizon contender Detroit should be a good test for Lavin’s young team.
13. What are the most likely upsets in the Tip-Off Marathon? Kent State is coming off a win over CAA favorite Drexel. A win over Temple is feasible for the Golden Flashes. It’s hard to imagine Michigan State coming out as flat as it did against UConn. The Spartans have a lot of motivation for the Kansas matchup and could pull off the upset. Will Tony Mitchell lead the Mean Green -- if it advances in the preseason NIT -- to a big win over Kansas State? That’s a possibility, too.
14. What is a seawolf? This is probably the most baffling question of the entire Marathon. According to the Stony Brook's website, a sea wolf “is a mythical sea creature and according to the legend of the Seawolf, anyone fortunate enough to view it was subject to good luck.” The Seawolves might need a little luck to beat a Rider team that rode St. John’s transfer Nurideen Lindsey (26 points, five assists, nine turnovers) to a season-opening victory over Robert Morris.
15. Will eligibility issues hinder VCU’s bid for the Atlantic 10 title? Shaka Smart’s defensive principles could fuel a VCU run to the Atlantic 10 title in the Rams’ first year in the conference. Losing Mo Alie-Cox and Jordan Burgess -- two freshmen who are ineligible to compete this season –- will impact VCU’s overall depth. But it won’t disrupt the Rams’ title hopes because they’re still one of the deepest teams in the league (seven players scored eight or more points in VCU’s season-opening win over Florida Gulf Coast), and they’ll probably defend as well as any team in the conference.
16. How far will Wichita State fall? The Rams’ opponent in the Tip-Off Marathon, Wichita State, is in a much different position. The Shockers won the Missouri Valley Conference last season, but the five seniors who anchored that team are gone. So Gregg Marshall’s squad is filled with youth this season. And the Rams’ in-your-face-defensive style could be a baptism by fire experience for the Shockers.
17. Is Steven Adams the catalyst Pitt needs to return to the NCAA tournament? Nerlens Noel is not the only high-profile big man in the 2012 class. Arizona’s Kaleb Tarczewski, Baylor’s Isaiah Austin and Texas’ Cameron Ridley were top-10 prospects, too. Like any young center, Adams will need time to adjust to the physicality among post players at the Division I level. But he’s equipped with the potential to fortify the paint for Jamie Dixon and help the Panthers get back to the NCAA tournament.
18. Is Kansas ready for Michigan State? The Jayhawks certainly weren’t unblemished in their first game of the year, a 74-55 win over Southeast Missouri State. They went 2-for-21 from the 3-point line and committed 13 turnovers in the win. It’s early. And it’s safe to assume that Bill Self will address those mishaps in preparation for MSU. But similar shooting struggles could lead to a loss for the Jayhawks.
19. Can Khalif Wyatt lead Temple to an A-10 title? Temple is one of a handful of squads in contention for the Atlantic 10 title. And the Owls’ aspirations are largely based on the return of senior Khalif Wyatt (17.1 ppg last year). He’s a difference-maker for a squad that will join the Big East next season. It’s important for Wyatt to extend the momentum he established last season, especially with the departures of Juan Fernandez and Ramone Moore. That mission continues with Kent State.
20. Is Kyle Wiltjer Kentucky’s best player? The sophomore dominated in a contentious matchup against Maryland. Although Calipari’s freshmen attracted the most preseason attention, Wiltjer (19 points, six rebounds and three blocks) looked like a star against the Terrapins. He’ll have a chance to duplicate those numbers against Duke and remind observers that Kentucky, much like last season’s squad, won’t reach Atlanta without its veterans.
21. Will Trey Burke back up his tweet? Last week, the Michigan point guard tweeted this declaration: “All the haters will be silenced! Trust Me!” Translation: We’ll prove Michigan’s doubters wrong. Some questioned Michigan’s slot as the No. 5 team in The Associated Press preseason poll. And a sloppy effort against Cleveland State or Bowling Green would only feed those “haters.”
22. Will the recent shakeup affect Detroit? With Ray McCallum Jr. running the show, the Titans should be ready for St. John’s. But they’ve endured a tumultuous stretch since late October, when the school’s athletic director, Keri Gaither, and men’s basketball assistant Derek Thomas both abruptly resigned on the same day. Thomas had been with head coach Ray McCallum Sr. for five years. The drama could impact Detroit’s season.
23. What will be the Marathon’s best game? I like the first game, West Virginia at No. 21 Gonzaga. So much on the line for both teams. West Virginia has multiple transfers who could make an immediate impact. Gonzaga returns most of last season's team, but the Bulldogs have been inconsistent under Mark Few in high-profile matchups. This game doesn’t feature the best teams in the Marathon, but I think it will be its best game.
24. Who will win the Marathon’s biggest matchups (Michigan State versus Kansas, Duke versus Kentucky)? I’ll go with Kansas over the Spartans. Michigan State couldn’t handle a UConn team that did little damage inside. So I think it will have its hands full against a balanced and aggressive Kansas team. And I’ll pick Duke over Kentucky. I think the Blue Devils will pressure the young Wildcats all night and force them to make a lot of mistakes that will ultimately cost them the game.