How do you really know it's college basketball season? When you find yourself awake at 6 in the morning, strung out on caffeine, watching a Stony Brook-Monmouth game and wondering if that fan you hear weirdly whooping is actually in the crowd or a figment of your addled imagination.
That fan was indeed in the stands. I knew this because I could confirm with hundreds of other maniacs who were also awake, also watching Stony Brook-Monmouth, also wondering where that insane noise was coming from. That was two years ago, during my first ESPN Tip-Off Marathon, and the 25-hour live chat that accompanied it.
To me, that's really what the Tip-Off Marathon is all about. It's not just the round-the-clock hoops, or the marquee primetime games, but the strange and hilarious things that happen along the way.
Stony Brook is back in that 6 a.m. spot this year -- this time playing Rider -- and we'll be back chatting during the lion's share of the marathon Tuesday. Here's a quick preview -- and, to appease my editors, some picks -- of all of the action to come (all times ET):
Midnight: West Virginia at Gonzaga
The pick: Gonzaga
2 a.m.: Davidson at New Mexico
The pick: New Mexico
4 a.m.: Houston Baptist at Hawaii
The pick: Hawaii
6 a.m.: Stony Brook at Rider
The pick: Stony Brook
8 a.m.: Northern Illinois at Valparaiso
The pick: Valparaiso
10 a.m.: Harvard at Massachusetts
The pick: UMass
12 noon: Temple at Kent State
The pick: Temple
2 p.m.: Detroit at St. John's
The pick: St. John's
4 p.m.: Butler at Xavier
The pick: Butler
7 p.m. Wichita State at VCU
Those preferring a more mid-major flavor in your Tuesday evening hoops can click over to ESPNU, where the Shockers will waste no time throwing their new-look team into the fire. A year ago, this would have been one of the four or five best matchups on the slate; the 2011-12 Shockers were one of the 10 most efficient teams in the country, and were led by four senior stars. They're all gone now. In their place is a fresh crop led by senior Demetric Williams, former bench specialist Carl Hall and Oregon transfer Malcolm Armstead.
So, yes, Gregg Marshall's team will still among the best in the Missouri Valley. But it may not have enough to stop Shaka Smart's HAVOC system, particularly on the road. As a team, VCU posted the highest turnover rate and steal percentage in the country in 2011-12, and returns every major contributor but Bradford Burgess. If Williams hasn't curbed the turnover woes that plagued him all last season, it could be a very long night at the office for the Shockers.
The pick: VCU
7 p.m.: Michigan State vs. Kansas (Champions Classic, Atlanta)
Tom Izzo is insane. What else could explain his willingness to put his team on an air base in Germany -- a truly cool event that also came off without a hitch, thanks to, you know, being indoors -- just four days before a Georgia Dome date with Kansas? The man is a sadist. Or he got his dates mixed up. (That I can empathize with.) In any case, the Spartans will have to rebound from a no-doubt jet-lagged weekend, not to mention a tough loss to UConn at Ramstein, in time to get a potentially crucial nonconference game in hand.
Even more exciting: This will be our first real exposure to Kansas, which is relying not only on returners (dominant shot-blocker Jeff Withey, guards Elijah Johnson and Travis Releford), but much-ballyhooed newcomers Ben McLemore and Perry Ellis. Bill Self's teams are always good, but it should be fascinating to get a look at how good this team can be and how early.
The pick: Kansas
8 p.m.: Cleveland State at Michigan
Michigan handled business, and looked good doing so, in its 91–54 win over IUPUI on Monday night. Sure, it's easy to look good -- and supremely athletic -- when you're playing IUPUI. But even so, the Wolverines do appear to have a pretty solid handle on how they'll work within their less perimeter-oriented, new-look offensive attack. Cleveland State is no pushover, but it'll be overmatched in Ann Arbor.
The pick: Michigan
9 p.m. Lehigh at Pittsburgh
The Mountain Hawks were blown out at Baylor on opening day, but that looked like more to do with Baylor than it did Lehigh. Preseason All-American C.J. McCollum (whom you will remember as last season's Duke destroyer) did his thing Friday, and will be just as lethal at Pitt. But the Panthers have retooled: Point guard Tray Woodall is healthy, former Central Michigan guard Trey Zeigler is the most underrated transfer of the offseason, and incoming center Steven Adams will be a force. Don't be fooled by last season's downward turn. Pitt is a lot better than you think.
The pick: Pittsburgh
30 minutes following MSU/KU: Duke vs. Kentucky (Champions Classic)
Michigan State and Kansas would be more than enough to sate our big-time matchup cravings, particularly at the end of a very long day of college basketball. But the marathon being what it is -- and the two-year-old Champions Classic being as excellent an idea as it is -- we get another really huge game between two programs that very much do not like each other. (Why? Start with: Laettner, Christian.)
Kentucky scrapped out a win against Maryland at the Barclays Center on Friday, but it appeared to have plenty of flaws, rebounding being the most noticeable. And, after an opening romp over Georgia State, Duke has to prove its more-prominent young guards (sophomore Quinn Cook, freshman Rasheed Sulaimon) have the ability to stop opposing teams on the perimeter.
The Blue Devils won't be nearly as athletic as Kentucky (few teams are), but Mason Plumlee matches up well with UK center Nerlens Noel, and Duke has a clear edge in early-season cohesion. Kentucky will get there eventually, but this is a major early opportunity for Mike Krzyzewski's charges -- one they (unlike Maryland) would do best not to miss.
The pick: Duke
10 p.m.: Alabama-Huntsville at Kansas State
Forward Tony Mitchell -- a highly touted recruit who took the long road to North Texas after failing to get eligible at Missouri -- is a trendy All-American pick. But Mitchell and the Mean Green couldn't hold off something called Alabama-Hunstville on Monday night, robbing us of Mitchell's potential primetime coming-out party. Anyway, it may be better this way, as Kansas State should field one of the more unforgiving defenses in the country this season. And hey, nothing wrong with a Division II team getting two hours in the national spotlight on ESPN2.
The pick: Kansas State
If you've done this whole event right, this is the part of the proceedings during which you flip off the TV and sleep for approximately 18 hours, waking only to move from the couch to the bed, definitely too tired to come back to this column to see if I've actually picked any of these games correctly. This is a crucial part of the routine. Apparently, sleep is important to human health. Who knew?
Happy Tip-Off Marathon, everyone.