Category archive: Drexel Dragons
Drexel coach Bruiser Flint never had false hope about an at-large berth in the NCAA tournament.
He said he had been burned twice before in 2007 and 2012.
The 2006-07 Dragons won at Syracuse, Villanova and Temple. But five CAA losses was a red flag for the selection committee and a ticket to the NIT after losing in the conference tournament.
The 2011-12 Dragons were picked to win the CAA. They won 27 games prior to selection Sunday and had a gaudy 16-2 conference record. But it wasn't enough -- again after losing to VCU in the conference tournament for the second time in five years.
The Dragons were picked to win the CAA again this season, so they're once again in position to contend for a bid. The odds are in their favor to win the league with VCU leaving for the A-10 a year early while Old Dominion, Georgia State, UNC Wilmington and Towson are all ineligible for the conference tournament because of either (A) bylaws that forbid teams leaving the conference to participate in the league tournament, or (B) poor APR scores.
Drexel is now 1-2 heading into the Anaheim Classic. In the preseason, the Dragons appeared to be a favorite to win the event, even with a first-round game against Saint Mary's and a supposedly rebuilding Xavier in their half of the bracket. Cal is the team to beat on the other side.
But the Dragons lost in overtime to both Kent State and Illinois State to start the season before beating Penn. And now their best player, leading scorer and lead guard Chris Fouch, is done for the season with an ankle injury.
The Dragons' hope isn't lost. But reality has settled in yet again for Flint. It's win the CAA tournament or bust -- nothing more and nothing less.
"Over the last two times that we thought we might get a bid, it's still been about the Colonial tournament,'' said Flint prior to embarking on the team's West Coast trip. "We had a great schedule and we didn't get in. Last year we won a lot of games and didn't get in. It hasn't worked out for us to get an at-large bid. I'm not sure what the issue is, but it's always been about the Colonial.''
Fouch was averaging 16.7 points a game. He will now try for a sixth season of eligibility. The Dragons didn't have guard Damion Lee for their win over Penn due to a whiplash injury he suffered in the previous game. Flint is hopeful that Lee can play in Anaheim. He also is banking on Tavon Allen, who missed the first two games but scored 15 in the win over Penn, taking over for Fouch. He'd like -- and perhaps needs -- Frantz Massenat to be a major factor as well.
The Dragons have always been a guard-heavy team with forwards who are undersized but crash the boards and make plays by earning second shots. But turnovers have crushed the Dragons early this season, and without Fouch, taking care of the ball will be even more important.
Drexel is an example of a team that knows it has a small window to get in the tournament. We can all dance around how important this game or that game is to the bigger picture for a team, but unless a team notches enough wins and avoids dropping games it shouldn't, then it still comes down to the conference tournament. Even mighty Gonzaga and Butler have been there before: Average nonconference records have put immense pressure on them to win their conference tournaments and earn a bid rather than leaving the at-large bid to chance.
At 1-2, the Dragons are hardly out of contention. Win three games in Anaheim, and suddenly the at-large conversation can take on a new life. But not having Fouch has splashed cold water on the Dragons' dream of finally getting into the NCAA tournament without having to claim a conference title.
"The only thing we're talking about is winning the [conference] tournament and getting in the NCAA tournament that way,'' said Flint. "We understand we won a lot of games last year. But it's about winning the tournament. It always has been our focus.
"It hurts without Chris, but we knew we had a tougher schedule,'' said Flint, referring to the Anaheim tournament and games against Saint Joseph's and Davidson, teams that should also be in contention for NCAA bids. "We know we need to win the CAA tournament to get into the NCAA tournament. We know how hard it is to get in without it.''
Delaware, which is in the NIT Tip-Off semifinals after winning at Virginia, must be taken seriously as a CAA contender. Hofstra, which took out Marshall and South Dakota State at home, could be a threat, as well. George Mason may be the team to beat after winning at UVA and nearly taking down New Mexico in the Virgin Islands. Overall, though, this is as weak as the CAA has been since George Mason made the Final Four in 2006.
Flint isn't giving up hope. He said if Lee can play up to his potential, the Dragons can sustain the loss of Fouch. Fouch made the big baskets, so someone has to be willing to take and make those shots.
"We don't have the experience,'' Flint said. "But we can be fine. It is what it is now.''
Flint has been at Drexel for 12 years. He coached at UMass the previous five. He hasn't been to the NCAA tournament since his first two years with the Minutemen in 1996-97 and 1997-98.
"I'm a wise, old vet now,'' said Flint. "We were picked to win the league last year and we did. The only thing we didn't do was win the conference tournament.''
Nothing has changed despite the Fouch injury. The Dragons can still win the league and must win the conference tournament to get a bid.
"We can still do what we're predicted to do,'' said Flint.
And if the Dragons do earn an NCAA bid, that's all anyone will remember -- even if it's as an automatic qualifier.
"I appreciate that and I'm hoping to convince them [to stay]," Iamarino said. "We've got league meetings coming up [May 29-June 1 in Asheville, N.C.] and like every other conference, except the Ivy League, I suspect, 85 to 90 percent of the issues will be centered around realignment issues."
The trickle-down effect of conference realignment seems to never end. The CAA loses anchor programs VCU (to the Atlantic 10 in the fall of 2012) and Old Dominion (to Conference USA in the fall of 2013). Those two moves came on the heels of Georgia State moving to the Sun Belt.
The CAA has to do something to maintain relevance, and the Southern Conference, and possibly the America East Conference, are ripe for the pickings. (America East commissioner Amy Huchthausen said the league won't comment on any overtures from the CAA or anyone else toward its programs, such as Boston University and Stony Brook.)
"[The CAA] is such a Southern league I think they have to replace them with Southern teams," Delaware coach Monte Ross said. "I think they have to have that Southern flavor that the league is known for, and Davidson is a quality name and program."
Said Towson coach Pat Skerry: "But we've got to get someone in the North, too. Stony Brook could be a viable option."
Davidson and College of Charleston are the most obvious choices.
Iamarino is well aware of the interest in his league's programs. But he said he has every intent of reminding the schools that they are in a competitive league and the proximity of the member schools offers low travel costs.
"We're all within the geographic footprint," Iamarino said. "We avoid missing class time. The fans can travel to road games. That's why conferences were normally put together in the first place."
Iamarino said the exit fee is $300,000 for notice of two years or more and $600,000 for less than two years.
Charleston athletic director Joe Hull said the school doesn't have a position on the matter yet and said his school was happy in the Southern Conference.
Davidson athletic director James Murphy said it wouldn't be appropriate to comment on conference affiliation. But head coach Bob McKillop was willing to speak.
He said that 25 percent of the 1,800 students on campus play a sport, meaning that a move to the CAA affects a high percentage of the student population.
"We have rigorous academic standards," McKillop said. "We've been to the NCAA tournament five times and the NIT twice in the past 10 years. We present a unique situation. But any decision will be made at the presidential level, not just a basketball decision."
Translation: Davidson is doing just fine in the Southern and doesn't necessarily need to move to the CAA. It also means that their options may not be limited to the CAA. The CAA needs Davidson to beef up its membership and provide a consistent competitor for the likes of George Mason and Drexel.
"VCU left the Colonial for the A-10, but who is to say the A-10 isn't going to change in the next three to four months? Who is to say the Big East or who is to say the Colonial won't change more?" McKillop said. "The dominoes have been blowing from the BCS. There are so many kinds of hypotheticals. Maybe James Madison and Delaware will go to the MAC in football or William & Mary to the Patriot."
Northeastern coach Bill Coen said he's hopeful that there are no knee-jerk reactions in the CAA.
"I think everyone needs to take a breath," Coen said. "You have to guard against doing something quickly that might not be a long-term solution."
George Mason athletic director Tom O'Connor said the onus is on the remaining schools to continue to show a commitment to remaining in the league.
"We all need to be proactive," O'Connor said. "You can't be stagnant. If you look internally and basketball is important to you then make sure you give the program all the tools to be successful."
Georgia State and Old Dominion are in the Colonial next season, but league bylaws prohibit their participation in the conference tournament. Towson and UNC Wilmington are ineligible for the tournament based on poor academic scores; Towson is appealing.
At this juncture, unless something changes, only seven schools would be eligible for the conference tournament in 2013.
O'Connor said the bylaw preventing Old Dominion and Georgia State from postseason participation should be changed when the league meets next week.
"My philosophy is that we should let the student-athletes play in championships," O'Connor said. "I think we can have conversations about our bylaws in the CAA."
O'Connor said there should be discussion about suspending or doing away with the rule altogether. He said the bylaw was put in place 10 years ago but "the world has changed in a lot of different ways. Student-athletes should have an opportunity to participate in championships."
If the membership can resolve the tournament issue, that might be the first step in trying to move ahead as one conference thinking about each other rather than the individual interests.
The CAA has to stick together at this point, or it will quickly fade from relevance.
• South Florida coach Stan Heath coached the Bulls to their 11th Big East win, leading them over Cincinnati on Sunday. The Bulls have won five of six games, holding opponents to fewer than 52 points each time. Their loss was to Syracuse, a game in which the Orange scored just 56.
"We grind it out," Heath said Sunday. "We're not great offensively but we guard."
So, do the Bulls deserve an NCAA berth? Their overall résumé says no. The selection committee judges each team individually, regardless of conference affiliation, and the Bulls simply don't have any meat with the best nonconference win coming against Cleveland State. And only one of the 11 Big East wins was against a team in the top six (Cincinnati).
The Bulls have two games left, at Louisville on Wednesday and then home versus West Virginia on Saturday.
Beating Louisville would suffice for a top six Big East win. West Virginia would not.
"I think this team is worthy," Heath said of a bid. "I know we have to continue to win. But 11 wins in this conference? Should we be penalized for beating Pitt [twice] when they had a full deck? Or sweeping Villanova?"
Heath's point is that in a normal year picking up four wins against those two traditional powers would have meant a bid. But Pitt and Villanova will play on the first day of the Big East tournament. South Florida will not. The Bulls won't get a double bye but will likely have a single bye.
"We haven't lost to a team that isn't ranked in the Top 25 since Dec. 28 and the only other teams that can say that are Kentucky, North Carolina and Syracuse," Heath said. "We should get credit for the teams you're supposed to beat."
Notre Dame was awful in the nonconference. South Florida wasn't much better. The Irish have one more win in the Big East than South Florida. But the Irish beat elite Big East teams Syracuse, Marquette, Louisville and South Florida.
"It shouldn't be us or them," Heath said.
And it's not. The Bulls will be judged independently and that's why the 11 Big East wins isn't enough yet due to the unbalanced schedule. The Bulls continue to give themselves a chance. But they're not in yet.
• Drexel won the Colonial Athletic Association for the first time since joining the conference and will be the top seed in the CAA tournament. I've gone on record that I believe the selection committee will reward the Dragons for winning the CAA regular season outright, regardless of the nonconference RPI or strength of schedule. Drexel coach Bruiser Flint agrees. Flint said winning 17 games in a row and 23 out of 24 should count for something. The Dragons have lost one game in 2012 -- at Georgia State on Jan. 2. Flint makes one more strong argument: "We're good." Hard to debate.
• VCU was in the Final Four a year ago and to get back in the Dance, the Rams may need some help. Or will they? VCU finished second to Drexel and could be headed for a 1-2 matchup in the CAA tournament in VCU's home in Richmond. VCU coach Shaka Smart doesn't want to promote the Rams' case, but it's extremely similar to that of Drexel. VCU has won 14 out of 15 and has lost just three times in 2012. VCU took a while to figure itself out after losing most of the core from last season's team. One thing Smart said is that he wishes he could have replayed some of the nonconference games. Smart said this season's team had a better regular season than a year ago. And he quoted Butler's Brad Stevens that the pressure is on teams like VCU and Butler during the regular season but once they get in the NCAAs it's all off. All true.
• Harvard is potentially going to have to earn the NCAA bid again the hard way -- through a playoff game. The loss to Penn on Saturday means that the Crimson will have to sweep Columbia and Cornell on the road and then wait to watch Penn go to Princeton on March 6. That's assuming Penn sweeps Brown and Yale at home. If the home teams prevail and Penn beats Princeton, Penn will play Harvard in a playoff for the bid. If Princeton beats Penn and the Crimson win out, Harvard wins by not playing.
• Harvard coach Tommy Amaker said the Ivy is crazy like all the other conferences. And he won't dare look ahead past Columbia.
• Penn's Zack Rosen has been "super human," according to the Quakers' staff. Penn's staff firmly believes it has the defense to win these three games to force a playoff but this is still a tall task.
• Purdue coach Matt Painter said that putting more shooters on the floor offensively and playing better position defense has been the difference for the Boilermakers. Purdue clinched a bid -- if it was ever in doubt -- by winning at Michigan over the weekend.
• Wichita State coach Gregg Marshall isn't taking anything for granted with the Missouri Valley Conference title. The bracket has potholes for the Shockers. Indiana State could be the first opponent if it gets past Southern Illinois. Northern Iowa, which faces Illinois State, could be next, and then a possible final game against rival Creighton. "It is no easy road," Marshall said. "Indiana State won it last year. UNI was 11 in the RPI coming out of the nonconference. There are going to be a lot of tough teams."
• Butler has quite a road to get back to the NCAAs as the Horizon League automatic qualifier. The Bulldogs have to beat Wright State and then possible nemesis Milwaukee before playing at champ Valparaiso in a possible semifinal. "It's a tough draw and we look forward to the challenge," Butler's Brad Stevens said. Does this team have the ability to win three games? "We will find out."
• Georgia has won at Mississippi State and upset Florida at home. The Bulldogs could be a spoiler in the SEC tournament. How has Mark Fox done this so far? "Without [Trey] Thompkins and [Travis] Leslie we've been a jump shooting team," Fox said. "When it goes in, we can compete with most people."
But Drexel may end up having the most important game of the weekend.
The Dragons are tied with George Mason for first place at 14-2 in the Colonial Athletic Association. Drexel (22-5 overall) has been one of the hottest teams in the country, losing just once since Dec. 3 (by 14 at Georgia State). That's 14 straight wins and 20 out of 21.
Drexel is at Cleveland State on Saturday, the second-place team in the Horizon League behind Valparaiso.
If Drexel wins this road game, it will be akin to George Mason and VCU winning at Wichita State in the BracketBusters event in 2006 and 2011, respectively. Both teams received an at-large berth and ultimately went to the Final Four.
Drexel won't need an at-large berth if it wins the CAA tournament. But beating Cleveland State on the road will certainly help the résumé.
Drexel coach Bruiser Flint said he would be surprised if his team isn't in the NCAA tournament.
But Flint isn't denying this game could be decisive for the Dragons.
"The eye test is big for us in this BracketBusters game," Flint said. "We need to go out and play well and get a win. It's not going to be easy."
Flint said he received tongue-in-cheek text messages from former CAA coaches Tom Pecora (then of Hofstra and now of Fordham) and Jim Larranaga (then of George Mason and now of Miami) encouraging Flint to finally get a bid.
Drexel has been to the NCAA tournament before, but the Dragons would be breaking ground in the CAA. No former America East team (Hofstra, Towson, Drexel or Northeastern) has made the NCAA tournament since joining the CAA.
The only team not from the state of Virginia that has won the CAA is UNC Wilmington and former member Navy.
"It's been hard, since Old Dominion, VCU and George Mason have great tradition," Flint said. "Those teams are really good. They've been able to dominate the league. You've got to give them credit.
"But the championship and conference is in Richmond and VCU is down the street, so it's a home game and Old Dominion gets a great crowd," Flint said. "There has been a big three."
After being forced out at UMass, Flint bounced back and was hired right away at Drexel in the spring of 2001. He had an impossible task at UMass, following John Calipari in 1996 after a Final Four berth. Four years later, Flint had another tall order: take over a hometown school in Drexel. The Dragons have four NIT appearances under Flint, but no NCAA berths.
"I've been in this league now 11 years, and people don't realize that we have the fourth-most wins since the merger," Flint said. "Me and [ODU coach] Blaine Taylor are the only ones left since the merger. It's been a long process."
Flint said that when he took the job he had no idea the Dragons were moving into the CAA.
"I didn't expect this league to be as good as it turned out to be," Flint said. "It's a really, really good league."
Flint said the CAA has three really strong teams this season, mentioning Drexel in the same sentence as VCU and George Mason. The problem is that none of the teams stood out in the nonconference.
Drexel had injury problems but the defense never wavered. The offense, long an issue for the Dragons, is no longer stagnant.
"One thing we can do is score the ball," said Flint. "We've got guys who can score the ball."
The Dragons don't have a marquee nonconference win. The only Top 25 team they've played has been Virginia, in the Paradise Jam in the Virgin Islands on Nov. 18 (Drexel lost 49-35).
The Dragons have plenty of options: Chris Fouch is healthy; Frantz Massenat is playing at a CAA Player of the Year level (the award should be his, Flint said); Damion Lee is on the perimeter, balancing out Samme Givens; and Dartaye Ruffin is on the inside.
Calipari, now the head coach at Kentucky, said Thursday that Flint should be coach of the year -- nationally.
"If we can be in the tournament," Flint said. "That would be special."
The quest for a bid could take a decided upward turn Saturday in Cleveland.
I've seen 20 teams in a number of venues on both coasts.
So after a thankful day to be with my family -- and a big thanks to all my tremendous colleagues who grind every day on our editorial operation on ESPN.com and on both sides of the camera on ESPN -- here's a look at what I've picked up on after two weeks on the road. And remember, this only includes games I've seen in person.
Best venue: It was natural to be skeptical about whether or not the Carrier Classic could be pulled off. But it far exceeded my expectations. The Navy did what it does best -- tremendous organization. The enormity of the USS Carl Vinson was awe-inspiring. The men and women who serve on the ship, as well as the ship's leadership, couldn't have been more welcoming. They were so grateful to have a chance to show what they do on a daily basis. The two teams -- North Carolina and Michigan State -- were model guests and displayed tremendous appreciation. The pageantry of the event, from the patriotic opening to the scenic view of downtown San Diego, will be hard to ever duplicate due to the uniqueness of 11-11-11 and the inaugural nature of the game. And the outdoor game may have seemed like a gimmick, but it was well-played in spurts for being the season opener for both teams.
Best team: North Carolina. The Tar Heels have lived up to the hype as the No. 1 team in the country. They have flaws, especially their perimeter depth. But the overall length of the frontcourt, the ability to get out on the break and the potential to hit scoring spurts and run out on teams is impressive. The Heels have three players -- Harrison Barnes, Tyler Zeller and Kendall Marshall -- who will compete for the ACC POY and two others -- John Henson and James Michael McAdoo -- who will be tough to defend.
Signature moment: When Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski won game No. 903 against Michigan State, passed his mentor Bob Knight and became the all-time winningest men's coach in NCAA history. The impromptu embrace by Coach K and Knight was met by a swarm of photographers and a rare teary eye from Coach K. The moment was genuine, real and showed the true emotion of such an arduous task of grinding out wins in this sport for three-plus decades.
Most impressive half: Kentucky's complete domination of Penn State in the first half at the Mohegan Sun Arena. The Wildcats made it look like it was a guarantee game with an opponent from a weak Division II conference. To Penn State's credit, the Nittany Lions did respond the next day and beat South Florida. But Kentucky showed on this day that it had more offensive versatility with the emergence of Doron Lamb and Kyle Wiltjer.
Most dominating performance: Jared Cunningham, Oregon State. Cunningham went off for 37 points in an overtime win over Texas in the Legends Classic. Cunningham was a highlight reel a year ago but has settled down, working on his game and finding ways to score in a variety of ways. Hofstra coach Mo Cassara said he was the best guard they've gone against in quite some time after Cunningham lit up the Pride for 35 in Corvallis prior to the Texas game. Cunningham is a legit Pac-12 Player of the Year candidate.
Best sub: Syracuse's Dion Waiters. Waiters jump-started the Orange with 11 points off the bench in the comeback win over Virginia Tech in the NIT Season Tip-Off semifinal. Waiters is a game-changer when he's on the floor. He gives Syracuse a different look because of his ability to get into the lane quicker than Scoop Jardine. He's not as refined as Jardine and can be hit or miss, but when he's on he gives the Orange a different look.
Most courageous: Texas A&M coach Billy Kennedy and St. John's coach Steve Lavin. Kennedy is trying to come back from a series of health setbacks, most notably being diagnosed with Parkinson's disease. He went through incredible fatigue over a five-week stretch that weakened him and it doesn't help that he has bone spurs in his shoulder. The first-year A&M coach is beat up, but is making a comeback one step at a time. He's an inspiration and a model of perseverance.
Lavin, meanwhile, is returning from prostate cancer surgery that was more extensive than most. He had a seven-hour procedure to take out his prostate and also scrape other lymph nodes to ensure that the cancer was all gone. He said he is cancer-free, but is still working his way back from the exhausting surgery. Lavin has to manage his energy and that's why he was able to coach in the Garden for two days in a row but then needed to take a day off from the rigors of coaching earlier this week.
Biggest surprise: Stanford's blowout win over Oklahoma State. The Cowboys were obviously a bit distracted on Wednesday. Oklahoma State coach Travis Ford, who has been crushed by the horrific plane crash that cost the lives of women's coaches Kurt Budke and Miranda Serna, said there were no excuses. And there is this: Stanford was that good. Josh Owens scored 21 points and is, like Cunningham, a Pac-12 POY candidate. I'm not sure Stanford can continue this early-season success, but the Cardinal certainly have the look of an upper-division Pac-12 team.
Two to single out: Over the past three weeks, I took notice of two players who continue to exhibit maturity and professionalism in the way they handle themselves with the media and the respect they have for those older than them. Texas freshman Myck Kabongo has a tremendous presence about him. So too does Michigan State senior Draymond Green. You sense that both of these young men will be stars in whatever they choose to do going forward.
Player only scratching the surface: Kentucky's Anthony Davis will be a star by season's end with his ability to control the paint. He is such an immense talent with his length and game-changing shot-blocking. His offense will only continue to diversify.
Most important wins: Vanderbilt beating NC State and Oregon State in the closing moments. The Commodores found ways to win the Legends Classic with key defensive stops and timely shooting at the IZOD Center. The Wolfpack and Beavers are vastly improved from a year ago, but the Dores had to win these games to shed the sour taste of getting beat up by Cleveland State at home. Vandy will get big man Festus Ezeli back in a few weeks. So these wins were critical for this team's confidence.
Two teams to watch: Oregon State still has to win the games it should over the next month -- all against teams outside the power-six conferences and perhaps none against teams bound for the NCAA tournament. But the talent is in place with this team to make some noise in the Pac-12. The emergence of Ahmad Starks as a push-it point guard, the length of Eric Moreland and Devon Collier, the soft hands of Joe Burton inside and the scoring of Cunningham make this team a good watch.
NC State had talent when Mark Gottfried arrived and it has only gotten better. C.J. Leslie is a potential big-time scorer. Scott Wood can make shots. C.J. Williams and Alex Johnson are solid role players. DeShawn Painter is a rugged face-up and inside post player and the potential exists for Thomas de Thaey and Jordan Vandenberg to cause problems when they body people up in the lane. The ACC is weak beyond the top three, opening up a spot for the Wolfpack.
The great enigma: Mississippi State. After dropping a home game to Akron, the Bulldogs won the 2K Sports Classic benefiting Coaches vs. Cancer with wins over Texas A&M and Arizona. Arnett Moultrie and Renardo Sidney provide one of the tougher matchups of any big man combo. Dee Bost is a veteran point guard who knows how to run a team. But the two players who may hold the key to this team are Deville Smith and Rodney Hood, a pair of freshman guards who can change the game with their speed and shooting when inserted.
Incomplete read: Drexel. The Dragons were without two of their top three guards in Chris Fouch and Tavon Allen. Yet Drexel pulled away from Rider in impressive fashion during the Tip-Off Marathon. The CAA favorite has a tough inside, undersized player in Samme Givens and a grinding guard who can get points in Frantz Massenat. But then the Dragons fell flat in the Virgin Islands and lost to Norfolk State and scored 35 points against Virginia. Let's see how Drexel does once it's healthy before giving a full review.
Best coaching jobs: Kansas' Bill Self and Virginia Tech's Seth Greenberg. Neither team won when I saw them but they were going up against top-five squads in Kentucky and Syracuse. Self and Greenberg are maximizing the talent on their teams. They do have studs in Thomas Robinson (Kansas) and Dorenzo Hudson (Virginia Tech), but they get their teams to play as hard as they coach. Kansas' play in Maui deserves high praise and the Jayhawks will once again be in contention to win the Big 12. The Hokies will find a way to be on the bubble again. Neither team is as stocked as it has been in the past, but these two coaches will get these teams to reach their potential.
Best teams: Nothing I saw changed my opinion that North Carolina, Kentucky, Duke and Syracuse are all legitimate Final Four contenders. I have yet to see Ohio State, but put the Buckeyes in that group, as well.
Best game I missed: Well, that one is easy. The Kansas-Duke championship game at the Maui Invitational will go down as one of the best 40 minutes of the regular season. What a show that was.
The atmosphere of the Carrier Classic, with its overwhelming sense of patriotism and the sheer uniqueness of playing a game on the deck of the USS Carl Vinson, along with the historical significance of that vessel, will be hard to top.
The view was magnificent. The Naval presence in all its glory and uniformity was as impressive as one would imagine. And the appreciation from the sailors for the break from the daily routine was genuine.
If you missed that game or any of the matchups on opening weekend, you're in for a treat because you won't be able to turn on the ESPN family of networks from 11:59 p.m. ET on Monday until about 1 a.m. ET on Wednesday without seeing college basketball on the screen.
Here are some questions to ponder as the fourth annual Tip-Off Marathon begins with Washington State at Gonzaga and ends with an NIT Season Tip-Off game the following night from Stanford.
1. Will Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski become the NCAA's all-time winningest coach? The Blue Devils play Michigan State in the first game at the Champions Classic (ESPN, 7 p.m. ET) from Madison Square Garden. Duke struggled against Belmont in its opener and then blasted Presbyterian on Saturday. Neither result should come as a surprise. The Blue Devils are usually the home team in New York, but it will be interesting to see how many Spartans fans are able to make the trip, especially if some of them just went to San Diego. Still, Michigan State has a real shot to upstage Coach K. Despite their loss to North Carolina, the Spartans were the aggressor, outrebounding the Tar Heels convincingly 42-31. The Blue Devils have as much size as North Carolina, so the challenge will be similar. But MSU must shoot better from 3-point range than it did against UNC (2-of-20). Another key to the game is seeing which team converts timely perimeter shots. If Duke wins, we'll have the unique setting of Krzyzewski winning No. 903 and passing his former coach Bob Knight, who will sit courtside calling the game for ESPN.
2. How will the Thomas Robinson-Anthony Davis matchup unfold? This could turn out to be one of the more anticipated frontcourt showdowns during the nonconference schedule, as this individual battle highlights the second game of the Champions Classic between Kentucky and Kansas (ESPN, 9:30 ET). Robinson began the season as the go-to guy for Kansas, finishing with 18 points and 11 rebounds against Towson. Meanwhile, Davis, UK's highly touted freshman, blitzed Marist with 23 points and 10 boards in the Wildcats' 50-point rout. Kentucky has more options than KU and can lean on Doron Lamb or Terrence Jones to get it plenty of points. But the tussle between Robinson and Davis will be good theater throughout the night.
3. How will Ohio State's Aaron Craft and William Buford handle Florida's perimeter? We're not conceding the Jared Sullinger-Patric Young matchup (well, we will for these purposes), but this game may come down to the guards. Florida's set of Kenny Boynton, Mike Rosario, Brad Beal and Erving Walker is off to a sensational start. Rosario scored 19 points off the bench, while Boynton scored 19 and Beal 14 (Walker added 10) in a rout of Jackson State. Craft and Buford will be tested defensively more so than they were a year ago, when Ohio State won easily at UF during this same event. The Buckeyes, who host the Gators at 8 p.m. ET (ESPN2), are the No. 3 team in the nation because of Sullinger. But this will be the first time OSU may feel the loss of defensive specialist David Lighty.
4. Can Belmont emerge from the brutal opening weekend with a split? The Bruins nearly nipped Duke in a comeback that fell one possession short. The next challenge is a visit to in-state Memphis at noon ET on ESPN. Belmont won't have any awe factor in playing the Tigers. The Bruins should come into this game oozing with confidence after their showing versus the Blue Devils. Memphis is still a young team and a work in progress. The Tigers have more talent, but the question is whether they will show patience against a Belmont team that will want to run and run and run. This could be one of the most entertaining games of the day.
5. How will Baylor handle its one and likely only test during Perry Jones III's suspension? Jones must sit for three more games after accepting an extra benefit. The Bears beat Texas Southern on Friday and Jackson State on Sunday. The two games that follow Baylor's home matchup with San Diego State (ESPN, 2 p.m. ET) are South Carolina State and Texas-Arlington. This is not the same Aztecs team from last season after the roster was gutted by graduating seniors and an early-entry NBA departure. Still, they are athletic enough to cause problems. The Bears have options with Quincy Acy, Quincy Miller and Anthony Jones, but this game should at least push Baylor a tad more than the first two did during Jones' suspension.
6. How will Gonzaga's guards respond after a poor first outing? The Bulldogs showed in a tight win over Eastern Washington that they can rely heavily on Robert Sacre (22 points and 10 boards). But the perimeter shooters went 3-of-13 on 3s, and Marquise Carter was 2-of-11 and Mike Hart, Gary Bell, Kevin Pangos and David Stockton were a combined 6-of-15 from the field. Washington State is a team in transition, and the Zags should win this game. But Gonzaga has plenty of tougher challenges ahead, and so its guard play will need to improve. Still, this will be a good chance to see Sacre and Elias Harris on display against the Cougars, tipping off the Marathon at 11:59 p.m. ET on Monday night (ESPN).
7. As for the two women's games on the Marathon schedule How will Tennessee perform after coach Pat Summitt's health diagnosis? If you saw Robin Roberts' piece on "Good Morning America," you know it is clear that the Lady Vols are determined to win a national title for Summitt. The Tennessee coach also seems as driven as ever in her quest to keep coaching while she battles early-onset dementia. This should be an emotional game, as they all may turn out to be, for the No. 3 Lady Vols as they host No. 7 Miami (ESPN2, 6 p.m. ET). And how will Texas A&M handle its status as the reigning champs? The Aggies aren't expected to repeat as national champs, but they have established themselves as an elite program. The primer to the Tennessee game won't involve as much theater, but may be as competitive a game when No. 9 Louisville goes to College Station to play the No. 6 Aggies (ESPNU, 4 p.m. ET).
8. What should we expect from Texas' Myck Kabongo? Kabongo is an impressive young man who handles himself with poise and class. Now he has to translate that onto the court against a talented Rhode Island squad that lost at George Mason by two points in its season opener Friday. The Longhorns will lean heavily on Kabongo to start the season. How he handles this first assignment will be a strong indicator on what to expect, as URI will push Texas from the outset (ESPN, 4 p.m. ET).
9. How will Drexel handle the hype as the CAA's favorite? The Dragons play at Rider (ESPN, 6 a.m. ET) when most people might be waking up to watch the Marathon. Drexel is the early pick to win the Colonial Athletic Association, a conference that's receiving some buzz after placing its second team (VCU) in the Final Four since 2006. Drexel will be minus the injured Chris Fouch, but Samme Givens and Frantz Massenat should be enough to beat Rider. But the Dragons could do themselves a service by looking impressive, too.
10. How productive can the Saint Mary's frontcourt be this season? Randy Bennett anticipates that this frontcourt will be more productive than the one led by Omar Samhan, who led the Gaels to the Sweet 16 two seasons ago. That means Rob Jones will be getting help from Kyle Rowley, Brad Waldow, Mitchell Young and Beau Levesque. Jones dominated Fresno Pacific with 25 points and 12 boards, but Northern Iowa -- coming off an impressive road route of ODU -- will be a much more formidable foe for the Gaels (ESPN, 2 a.m. ET).
11. What should we expect from LeBryan Nash? Well, if you believe the hype, Oklahoma State has an all-Big 12 player who can elevate it to the NCAA tournament. The Cowboys will likely have plenty of chances to feature Nash against Arkansas-Pine Bluff in the NIT Season Tip-Off (ESPN3, 8 p.m. ET).
12. How polished will Syracuse look? If they defeat Manhattan on Monday, the Orange will face either Albany or Brown on Tuesday (ESPN3, 7 p.m. ET) in the NIT Season Tip-Off. The early indication is that this veteran team will be ready to compete for the Final Four. Of course, Syracuse isn't being challenged as much as some other teams, but the Orange smacked Fordham in the opener as Dion Waiters complemented Kris Joseph quite well.
13. A surprisingly close game? I'm going with Austin Peay at Cal (ESPN2, 10 p.m. ET). The Governors should be one of the favorites in the Ohio Valley Conference. Will Triggs and TyShwan Edmondson could play at any level. California is one of the Pac-12 favorites, but the Golden Bears will be tested in this CBE Classic matchup. Guards Allen Crabbe and Jorge Gutierrez will be tested versus Austin Peay.
14. What are the chances of a surprise to end the Marathon? I think Stanford will have a tough time with either SMU or Colorado State at home in the NIT Season Tip-Off. The Mustangs or the Rams are fully capable of being a pest and upsetting the Cardinal (ESPNU, 11 p.m. ET). Stanford first has to get past Fresno State, of course, to be in this matchup. To do that, Aaron Bright, Chasson Randle and Josh Owens will have to really take control.
15. How will Miami score inside? The Hurricanes are sans Reggie Johnson and Julian Gamble due to injuries. The given has been that the Canes have the guard play with Malcolm Grant and Durand Scott. But Rutgers will try and make Miami (ESPN3, 7 p.m. ET) beat the Scarlet Knights on the inside. This could turn out to be one of the closer games in the Marathon.
16. What should we expect from Villanova? This is somewhat of a blank slate. The Coreys -- Mr. Fisher and Mr. Stokes -- are gone. Maalik Wayns will be the dominant presence, but there are plenty of other options as Mouphtaou Yarou, JayVaughn Pinkston, Dominic Cheek and James Bell could all star against La Salle (ESPN3, 7 p.m. ET). The Wildcats are an unknown in the Big East, and this game will at least give us a taste of what we may see.
17. Is Kevin Jones ready to be a star? For two seasons, West Virginia's Bob Huggins has been waiting for Jones to emerge. He scored 20 points and grabbed eight rebounds in a season-opening seven-point win over Oral Roberts. Kent State will hardly be a walk for the Mountaineers (ESPN, 10 a.m. ET). Darryl Bryant can offset Jones' production, but the offense will likely flow through Jones as he adapts to being the front man for the Mountaineers.
18. How ready is Hawaii to make a run at Utah State? Gib Arnold has gone through a complete roster makeover and coached the Warriors to an impressive 19-13 record in his first season in Honolulu. Utah State beat BYU to open the season while one of the WAC favorites, Nevada, was flat at home in losing to Missouri State. Hawaii has a real shot to make a move in its final season in the WAC before heading to the Big West. Establishing an identity in a new conference is always key and ensuring that Cal State-Northridge (ESPN, 4 a.m. ET) is well aware of what it is in for when it visits the Stan Sheriff Center would do wonders for a first impression.
19. What will Morehead State and College of Charleston look like after losing their stars? This game could be one of the more competitive because of who both teams lost, rather than who they gained. Morehead State no longer has Kenneth Faried, while Charleston is without Andrew Goudelock. The Eagles made the NCAA tournament last season, defeating Louisville and then falling to Richmond. The Cougars reached the NIT quarterfinals before losing to eventual champ Wichita State. Regardless of how these teams look (ESPN, 8 a.m. ET) on Tuesday, you can expect them both to be factors in their respective conferences by February.
20. What are the chances Virginia Tech doesn't end up in New York for the NIT semifinals? We'll find out Tuesday night. The Hokies will likely play George Mason, assuming the Patriots beat Florida International and Virginia Tech knocks off Monmouth on Monday. Mason beat Rhode Island by two in overtime in its opener, and while it is a more depleted roster than expected when Paul Hewitt took the job, this is still a formidable squad. Virginia Tech used balanced scoring to beat East Tennessee State by 11 in its opener, but hitting 5-of-18 on 3s was an indicator that the perimeter shooting may not be the Hokies' strong suit.
Other notable names to watch: Does Tu Holloway have a monster game for Xavier against IPFW (7 p.m. ET)? Will Cincinnati's Yancy Gates dominate against Jacksonville State (7 p.m. ET)? How will Harvard fare as the hunted team on the road, even against a rebuilding Holy Cross squad (7 p.m. ET)? How will Dayton's Archie Miller fare in his road debut as head coach at Miami-Ohio (7 p.m. ET)? Will Mike Scott be a double-double performer for Virginia against Winthrop (7 p.m. ET)? Will LSU avoid plunging into irrelevance by winning at Coastal Carolina (7 p.m. ET)? Will Butler avoid a shaky 0-2 start by winning at home against Chattanooga (7 p.m. ET)? Will Saint Louis prove to be the team projected as an A-10 contender and win games it should -- even on the road at Southern Illinois (8 p.m. ET)? Will Missouri State continue to win on the road and take down Arkansas State (8 p.m. ET)? How impressive will Royce White be for Iowa State against Drake (9 p.m. ET)? How will Wyoming play for new coach Larry Shyatt against Northern Colorado (9 p.m.)? Will Arizona State start its climb toward respectability by winning a game at home versus Pepperdine (8:30 p.m. ET)? Will Utah State follow up its BYU win by beating rival Weber State (9 p.m.) on the road?
Andy Katz is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
VCU went to the Final Four last season.
George Mason went in 2006.
The conference has put two more teams in the Final Four in the past six seasons than every other league outside the power six, although Memphis went from Conference USA in 2008 and Butler represented the Horizon League the past two years.
But the CAA still hasn't solved its provincial problem. The Virginia-based league hasn't had a team outside the state win the regular-season conference title since UNC Wilmington in 2006, and outside of Wilmington capturing the title four times since 2000, no other team outside Virginia has won the title since former member Navy did in 1987.
Look deeper at the stats, and you'll see that no Northern team has won the conference, either, unless you're going to count Navy's three-year title run from 1985-87 as a team from the North because it's in Annapolis, Md.
Granted, the conference is made up of five teams from Virginia, so that tilts the odds in the favor of the state. But the former America East schools -- Delaware, Drexel, Hofstra, Northeastern and Towson -- that arrived to change the demographic of the Colonial in the middle of the past decade haven't been able to crack through and earn a regular-season CAA title or a conference tournament championship.
That has to change for the CAA to truly be looked at as a game-changing conference, not just a collection of strong schools at the top with VCU, George Mason and Old Dominion as the most consistent players.
"It's pretty much been a steady three of late with VCU, Old Dominion and Mason," ODU coach Blaine Taylor said. "We've been more consistent than them, but we just don't have a Final Four run."
And if there is a chance that a Northern team can finally break through this year, the one candidate is Drexel if it can knock off favorite George Mason.
"Northern teams have always been in the mix, but it's been tough to win it," Northeastern coach Bill Coen said. "I think Bruiser [Flint] and Drexel have a chance. Drexel does two things terrific every game. They are outstanding defensively and one of the best teams in the country in rebounding. If you're going to separate yourself, it will come down to someone making a play at the end of the game, and in this league, typically you have to have upperclassmen to win it."
VCU had a strong senior class last season led by Joey Rodriguez and Jamie Skeen. Mason had an upperclassman-dominated team in 2006. ODU, which finished second to Mason last season, had a senior-dominated lineup.
Drexel didn't. The Dragons finished one game behind VCU and lost by two points in the CAA quarterfinals to the Rams.
"If VCU doesn't win that game they probably don't get a bid and ultimately go to the Final Four," Taylor said. "Drexel will be quite good this year. The thing that separates our league from other BCS conferences is that we have a lot of seniors or upperclassmen."
Drexel actually has more of a mix this season, but that could be enough with sophomores Dartaye Ruffin and Frantz Massenat complementing juniors Chris Fouch and Derrick Thomas and senior Samme Givens.
"We were one of the younger teams in the league last season and we won games," Flint said. "But we essentially return everybody."
The problem for the CAA is still a perception-based issue. Drexel won at Louisville last season, won 21 games and lost out to fellow member Hofstra for the College Basketball Invitational bid out of the CAA. James Madison, which finished behind Drexel, also received a CBI bid. The CAA had no NIT teams. Drexel didn't have any other postseason opportunities.
"VCU came in fourth in our league, and people forget that," Flint said. "Our conference doesn't get the respect it deserves. We're good, but we won't surprise anybody."
Flint didn't take any one-way guarantees this season and that will hurt the Dragons. Two seasons ago, the Dragons played at Syracuse and at Louisville last season -- splitting the two games.
Drexel has a soft schedule with games against still-struggling Saint Joseph's, likely second-place Ivy Princeton, Binghamton and St. Francis (Pa). Flint said he didn't want to add more guarantee games like last season because he had only three home games slated originally. A year ago, Drexel played only four nonconference home games. That puts even more pressure on the Dragons to do well in the Paradise Jam, in which the Dragons could get a chance to play upstart Virginia in their bracket, then possibly Marquette on the other side -- two possible NCAA tournament teams. Flint said he's working on a deal to play co-MAAC favorite Fairfield.
"We understand that to win this league you may have to go 16-2, but we're in the same boat as Mason was last year," Flint said. "We'll see. I'm not going to fool myself. The expectations are high for us. We can't let games get away from us. We want to be the first team not from Virginia, not Wilmington, to win a championship."