By: Evan Lachnit, KCOU Sports
As the temperature is dropping and snow is beginning to fall, college basketball season is just about to start and heat up. The excitement, passion, intensity, and thrill of the sport is just getting under way.
The great thing is that we do not have to wait long at all for some tremendous matchups this season. Next Monday into Tuesday ESPN will run its College Basketball Tip-Off Marathon and the slate set up is not one that will disappoint. And though it is easy for the eye to go straight to the Champions Classic where Michigan St. will face Duke and Kentucky will take on Kansas in Indianapolis, do not look past the other games that will lead up to the two games that pit titans of the game against each other.
Here is a list of the top five games, other than the Champions Classic that will take place during the marathon.
No. 5- New Mexico St. vs. St. Mary’s
You will have to stay up late for this one as the game will tip at 2a.m. central time, but the game should be worth it. New Mexico St. is coming off a strong year out of the WAC where they went 26-10, won the WAC Conference Tournament. The Aggies played well in the NCAA Tournament pushing the four seed San Diego St. to overtime in the Round of 64. The Aggies have two seniors that will look to lead the team. Guard Daniel Mullings averaged 16.8 points and 1.9 steals per game last season. Another guard in D.K. Eldridge averaged 11.2 points per game last year and shot 40 percent from the three-point line. The Aggies will face a St. Mary’s team that is coming off of a 23-12 season where they lost in the second round of the NIT. The Gales had a down season last year missing the NCAA tournament. St. Mary’s senior forward Brad Waldow returns this season. He averaged 15.1 points and 7.5 rebounds per game last season. Though it may not look great on paper this should be a good early season mid-major matchup and the gym at St. Mary’s will for sure be rocking for this early morning tilt.
No. 4- Wichita St. vs. Memphis (Sioux Falls, South Dakota)
This game may have been higher on the list, but Memphis’s loss to division two Christian Brothers put a little bit of a damper on the product of Memphis. But the facts still remain that Memphis is a storied program that has been prominent the past decade. On the other side of the court, Wichita St. is coming off of an undefeated regular season, but fell short in the NCAA Tournament losing to eventual national runner-up Kentucky in the Round of 32. The game was one of the best games of March Madness and Kentucky hung on by the skin of its teeth. The Shockers come into this season ranked 11 and have key players from last season Ron Baker, Fred VanVleet, and Tekele Cotton back this season. They will feel the effects of losing Cleanthony Early to the NBA, but the Shockers are still poised to make a run. This game should be a showcase for Wichita St. and it will also be a chance for Memphis to get a big win in an early season game.
No. 3- Marquette vs. Ohio State
Buzz Williams is gone from Marquette, and Ohio State. lost a lot of talent from last season’s team, but this game will still be a good one. Shannon Scott returns to a Buckeye team that is ranked 20 in the preseason and has plenty of freshmen help to lead the Buckeyes this season. Marquette has a fairly experienced team coming back this year in their second season in the “new” Big East, but they still lack the star power and consistency needed to make a serious run at the conference crown or the tournament. This game would have been a clash of great teams three years ago, but it is still a marquee matchup.
No. 2- SMU vs. Gonzaga
SMU is coming off of a season where you could make a case that they were snubbed from the tournament. SMU did go all the way to the NIT championship, losing to Minnesota. This season Larry Brown has the talent to lead SMU to a deep run in the tournament. The Mustangs are ranked 22 and have five of their top six top scores back on the team this season including junior guard Nic Moore who led the team in points as well as assists. SMU will have its fair share of games to impress after the Gonzaga game as they face off with Indiana, Arkansas and Michigan in their non-conference schedule, not to mention they play in the same conference as the defending national champions. This game is vital for SMU to gain confidence. Gonzaga is not new to the spotlight or big games, but this will be a game that can put them in the right direction. Gonzaga is coming off of a 29-7 season where they lost to Arizona in the Round of 32 of the NCAA tournament. The 13 ranked Bulldogs Kevin Pangos, who scored 14.4 points per game and shot over 40 percent from behind the arc, will be vital to Gonzaga’s success. Gonzaga may have the strongest team they have had in years and it would not be surprising to see them in the Final Four. This game should prove to be an exciting matchup between top 25 teams.
No. 1- Utah vs. San Diego St.
It was splitting hairs between this game and the number two game on the list, but it will be worth the watch to see if Utah is up to their ranking. The Utes come off a season where they went 21-11 and were knocked out of the NIT in the first round. Utah should be vastly improved this season, and will look to compete for a PAC-12 championship. Delon Wright and Brandon Taylor return to the team and were the team’s leading scorers and rebounders last season. San Diego St. comes off of a season with a record of 31-5 and an appearance in the Sweet 16. The Aztecs are ranked 16 to start the season and should have a very good chance to win the Mountain West and make a run in the tournament. They have become a familiar team to see in March under Steve Fisher.