Each year, one of the things I enjoy most about the start of the college basketball season is the 24-hour tip-off marathon. It’s the only day of the year that you can turn on a TV at any hour of the day (or night) and watch a live basketball game. Not even the opening weekend of the NCAA Tournament can offer that.
Unfortunately, most people only watch the marathon for the primetime matchups between heavyweight programs like Kentucky and Duke. But not me. I enjoy watching the little guys, the mid-major schools like East Tennessee State that pack a tiny gym at six o’clock in the morning to watch their team’s only nationally-televised game of the season.
There is always at least a couple of games featuring teams who could be NCAA Tournament party crashers come March. This year is no different. On Tuesday, ESPN released the full lineup for the eighth annual College Hoops Tip-Off Marathon, and there are three contests between mid-majors that are worth watching.
So set your alarm clock, grab a bowl of cereal, and get ready to watch. Hey, somebody has to fill the 6 a.m. time slot, right?
BYU at Long Beach State, 1:45 A.M. ET, ESPN2
At first glance, BYU appears a little over-qualified to be recognized as a “mid-major.” The Cougars play in the same conference at Gonzaga and St. Mary’s, and make regular appearances in the Top 25 and NCAA Tournament. There is no denying BYU’s success, but for some reason it can’t quite shake the mid-major tag.
The biggest question that faces the Cougars this season is how they will replace Tyler Haws. Haws is BYU’s all-time leading scorer, and carried much of the offensive load for the Cougars last season.
Luckily, senior all-conference guard Kyle Collinsworth returns for BYU. Collinsworth was a nightly triple-double threat last season, recording an NCAA-record six triple doubles. He was also the only player in the NCAA to rank in the top 100 in rebounds, assists and steals.
If Collinsworth can build off of last season’s success, the Cougars have a chance to be a legitimate threat in the WCC. If for no other reason, BYU’s game agaisnt Long Beach State is worth watching just to see Collinsworth in action.
Green Bay at East Tennessee State, 6 a.m. ET, ESPN2
This game is intriguing for a couple of reasons. Last year was one of Green Bay’s best seasons ever, as the senior-laden Phoenix went 24-9 en route to a second-place finish in the Horizon Conference and ultimately losing to Illinois State as a fifth seed in the postseason NIT.
This season, Green Bay will look to keep the momentum going and have another successful season in the Horizon. However, it will have to find a way to replace key contributors — such as Keifer Sykes, Greg Mays and Alfonzo McKinnie –who graduated, as well as head coach Brian Wardle, who left to take the head coaching job at Bradley.
Across the court, former Gregg Marshall and Bruce Pearl assistant Steve Forbes enters his first season as head coach at East Tennessee State. He looks to turn around a struggling Buccaneer squad that went 16-14 (8-10 Southern Conference) last year.
On paper, this looks like a great hire for the Buccaneers — Forbes has a great resume and went 61-6 as a head coach in the junior college ranks — but Green Bay will be the new coach’s first test on a national stage.
Stephen F. Austin at Northern Iowa, 8 a.m. ET, ESPN2
If there was a primetime slot for a mid-major matchup, this would be it. Last season, Northern Iowa defeated Stephen F. Austin in an epic overtime thriller during the marathon. The loss is SFA’s only home loss during the last three seasons.
Both SFA and UNI have experienced great success in recent years. SFA finished last season with a 29-5 record, winning it’s third-straight Southland Conference regular season conference title and second-straight conference tournament championship. UNI posted a 31-4 record, won the Missouri Valley Conference Tournament and was a mainstay in the Top 25 throughout the season.
However, both squads must figure out how to replace all-conference post players — Jacob Parker and Seth Tuttle — who have played major roles in the teams’ success. Senior guard Thomas Walkup returns for the Lumberjacks after leading the team in scoring a season ago, but he will need help making up for Parker’s three-point shooting, rebounding and scoring. On the other hand, the Panthers had a very balanced offense last season (Tuttle was the only player that averaged double figures), so it might be easier for them to absorb the blow of losing Tuttle.
Either way, these two teams are forming a great rivalry between two top-notch mid-major programs. Hopefully, this year’s installment will be as entertaining as last year’s contest. If so, it will be the perfect beginning to a day filled with college basketball.