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Previewing Kentucky, Duke, Kansas and Michigan State in the Tip-Off Marathon


The opening of the college basketball season garnered a little more buzz this season, even if some of the key games didn’t go as planned.

Even if the aircraft carrier games -- two of which were canceled and one was postponed -- didn’t go off without a hitch, the effort was in the right place. Teams like Kentucky, Maryland, Michigan State and Connecticut were in early action in key games, a trend that will continue with ESPN’s tipoff marathon beginning Tuesday morning at midnight.

There’s plenty here to like with matchups that run the gamut from the major powers (Duke, Kansas, Kentucky and Michigan State), the top programs from outside the Big Six conferences (Butler, Gonzaga, Temple and Xavier) and mid-major darlings (Davidson, Detroit and UMass).

Here’s your guide through the marathon:

Bracket projections | Roundtable picks |
Conference changes
| Preseason All-Americans

All times Eastern, All games on ESPN
West Virginia at Gonzaga (midnight)

This could be the season Gonzaga escapes its status quo -- not that an average Gonzaga season of an NCAA Tournament appearance and a finish at the top of the West Coast Conference standings is anything to take lightly. But the Bulldogs return four starters from last season along with depth on the bench. The lone absence was seven-foot center Robert Sacre. Newcomer Przmek Karnowski, who is 7-1, may fill that void after scoring 22 in the opener against Southern Utah. West Virginia is a bit of a mystery team. The Mountaineers are relying heavily on transfers: point guard Juwan Staten from Dayton, center Aaric Murray from La Salle and wing Matt Humphrey from Boston College. How Karnowski handles Murray and Deniz Klicli could be a barometer for the season; the same goes for Staten against Gonzaga sophomore point guard Kevin Pangos.

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Game to watch: Duke vs. Kentucky
Game to miss: Houston Baptist at Hawaii
Player to watch: Kyle Wiltjer, Kentucky
Freshman to watch: Ben McLemore, Kansas
Top individual matchup: Nerlens Noel (Kentucky) vs. Mason Plumlee (Duke)
Conference on the spot: Atlantic 10
Mid-major to watch: UMass
Mid-major player to watch: Ray McCallum, Detroit
Spelling test: Deniz Klicli (West Virginia) vs. Przemek Karnowski (Gonzaga)

Davidson at New Mexico (2 a.m.)
A midnight tipoff at The Pit should provide a raucous atmosphere. New Mexico is in the second tier of the Mountain West but still a possible NCAA Tournament team as long as the Lobos can find a replacement for forward Drew Gordon. Davidson will be worth keeping an eye on this season with a veteran-laden team led by Jake Cohen.

Houston Baptist at Hawaii (4 a.m.)
Someone has to play in the 4 a.m. timeslot, and local tip time in Honolulu will be 11 p.m. Neither team is a postseason contender, but Hawaii might fare a bit better in the Big West that it did in the WAC.

Stony Brook at Rider (6 a.m.)
Stony Brook is looking to turn America East regular season titles (the Seawolves have won two of the last three) into NCAA Tournament appearances (the Seawolves have none). Neither is at play here.

Northern Illinois at Valparaiso (8 a.m.)
Valparaiso is expected to contend in the Butler-less Horizon League this season with conference player of the year Ryan Broekhoff returning. Northern Illinois went 5-26 last season and started this season on a similar path with a 77-64 loss to Omaha.

Harvard at UMass (10 a.m.)
The Minutemen haven’t been to the NCAA Tournament since 1998, but UMass is as optimistic as it’s been in several seasons. UMass won 25 games last season during a successful run in the NIT. Derek Kellogg has the pieces to run his up-tempo system thanks to 5-9 dynamic point guard Chaz Williams. After reaching the Tournament last season, Harvard is reeling from a campus-wide academic scandal that led to the dismissal of co-captains Kyle Casey and Brandyn Curry.

Temple at Kent State (noon)
Temple has been as steady as any team in the country the last five seasons, but the Owls enter this season with questions. Stalwarts Ramone Moore, Juan Fernandez and Michael Eric are gone. The team is in the hands of Khalif Wyatt (17.1 points per game last season) and Scootie Randall, who missed all of last season with a foot injury. Kent State lost the core of last year’s team, but the Golden Flashes should have two of the MAC’s better players in Randal Holt and Chris Evans. Kent State already defeated Colonial favorite Drexel 66-62 in overtime this season.

Detroit at St. John’s (2 p.m.)
Steve Lavin returns to a St. John’s team filled with sophomores and freshmen -- forward God’sgift Achiuwa is the only returning upperclassman -- whereas Detroit is the team with NCAA Tournament experience. The best player on the court will be Titans guard Ray McCallum, a potential pro prospect. He will look to atone for an eight-point performance against Kansas in the NCAA Tournament last season.

Butler at Xavier (4 p.m.)
Butler makes its debut as an Atlantic 10 team earlier than normal with a conference game in its second game of the season. Both teams are dealing with roster turnover that may impact their ability to contend for an NCAA Tournament -- or not. Arkansas transfer Rotnei Clarke did exactly what Butler expected from him by scoring 21 points and hitting five three-pointers in the opener against Elon. Xavier defeated Fairleigh Dickinson 117-75 with 22 points and 15 assists from Dee Davis.

Michigan State vs. Kansas (7 p.m. in Atlanta)
Facing Connecticut and Kansas isn’t the easiest way to begin the post-Draymond Green era for Michigan State, but it was still a bit of a surprise for the Spartans to lose to the post-Jim Calhoun Huskies. Michigan State never seemed to be in a rhythm and struggled with balance on the score sheet. Branden Dawson, Keith Appling and freshman Gary Harris all scored in double figures. No one else topped six points. Kansas didn’t face an opponent as good as UConn, but Kansas’ freshmen looked solid in their debuts: Ben McLemore finished with nine points, 12 rebounds and five assists, and Perry Ellis had nine points and 12 assists. After Michigan State’s frontcourt struggled against UConn, the Spartans will have a tougher task against Jeff Withey.

Duke vs. Kentucky (9 p.m. in Atlanta)
New-look Kentucky probably wasn’t what the Wildcats had in mind in the 72-69 win over Maryland. Little-used guard Jarrod Polson was the game’s hero when starting point guard Ryan Harrow fell ill, and sophomore Kyle Wiltjer turned out to be Kentucky’s clutch shooter. In a matchup against Duke’s Mason Plumlee, Kentucky probably can’t afford to be out-rebounded 46-34 and 23-12 on the offensive glass, as it was against Maryland. Meanwhile, Kentucky’s guard play will probably have to be more than Polson against Seth Curry and Rasheed Suliamon.

By David Fox

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