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10 Things We Learned During ESPN's 24-Hour Tipoff Marathon

by Photo of Ross Bernhardt

Kentucky is a deserving number one, Duke has a chance to be elite, and more.

10 Things We Learned During ESPN's 24-Hour Tipoff Marathon

The college basketball season began in earnest last with the start and finish of ESPN's 24-Hour Tipoff Marathon, featuring games around the clock that ended with two marquee match-ups in the Champions Classic. We consumed a ton of early-season basketball and here are a few things we took away from the action.

1. Kentucky is as good as advertised

Te top-ranked Kentucky Wildcats absolutely mopped the floor with the fifth-ranked Kansas Jayhawks, toppling the Jayhawks 72-40 in what was supposed to be the signature game of the entire Tip Off Marathon. The Wildcats completely swarmed Kansas on the defensive end of the floor, holding them to 12 points in the second half and forcing them to shoot just 19.6% from the field on the game. Kentucky blocked 11 shots, though it seemed like they swatted over 20. The size and length that Kentucky possesses on the perimeter and in the paint, when fielded properly, can stifle opponents. Kansas was shell-shocked. They were apprehensive in the paint, and they were even a bit gun-shy on the perimeter.

That being said, Kentucky coach John Calipari was still preaching that his team is a long way from where they should be, which is pretty right. Although this was a dominating win over a top-five team, they fouled way too much, they shot 61% from the free throw line, and there is still the issue of how Calipari's platoon system will work moving forward. But the bottom line is Kentucky has the most talented team in the country, and when they play like they did last night on the defensive end, not many teams are beating them.

2. Duke can be elite

The fourth-ranked Duke Blue Devils didn't have much of a problem dispatching the Michigan State Spartans in the first game of the Champions Classic. The talent level of Duke's freshman class has really stood out over the team's first three games. Top recruit Jahlil Okafor gets much of the hype, and he was excellent as usual with 17 points (on 8-10 shooting), five rebounds, two steals and two blocks. But freshman wing Justise Winslow might be just as important to the Blue Devils' success. He was excellent last night against the Spartans, putting up 15 points, six rebounds and three assists. Winslow is talented and fills a clear void of a wing presence on Duke's roster. His play will be massively important for Duke as the season moves along, but when Duke is clicking, they have the makings of a title team.

3. Gonzaga might finally be legit

The Gonzaga Bulldogs have failed to live up to the hype over the last decade, especially come tournament time, but the Zags might finally have a team that can get past the Sweet Sixteen. On Monday night, Gonzaga handled 22-ranked SMU easily with a 72-56 win in Spokane. Two things really keyed the victory for Gonzaga. The first is a healthy Kevin Pangos, who lit up the Mustangs for 17 points and seven assists with five threes. Pangos has been bothered by foot and toe issues in years past, but he was fearless and effective. A healthy Pangos completely transforms the Gonzaga offense, especially when he doesn't need to handle as many playmaking responsibilities.

The second reason was the play of freshman Domantas Sabonis, son of Lithuanian basketball legend Arvydas Sabonis. The highly-touted freshman gave the Bulldogs a huge spark off the bench, putting up 13 points and nine rebounds. Sabonis is one of the most active rebounders Gonzaga has had since someone like David Pendergraft, and Sabonis is much more physically gifted than his predecessor. He has great size and mobility in the paint and just attacks the ball when it's in the air. He can also do things like this:

4. Virginia isn't going anywhere in the ACC

With all of the hype around Duke, it's easy to forget that Tony Bennett's Virginia Cavaliers won the ACC last year and started this season as a top-10 team in the country. Virginia easily beat South Carolina State 75-55, and while the Cavaliers lost a few key pieces from last year's team, they still have a deep squad with more players ready to step up and contribute more this season. Their balance and depth (and the playmaking abilities of guys like Justin Anderson, Malcolm Brogdon and Anthony Hill) might be enough to fend off Duke and the rest of the challengers in the ACC.

5. Wichita State is still dangerous

Like Gonzaga in the previous tournament, the Wichita State Shockers entered the dance with a #1 seed and big expectations. They didn't quite meet them, falling to Kentucky in a hard-fought game in the Round of 32. But that same team returns every key contributor not named Cleanthony Early, and they displayed why teams should still be fearful of WSU. Ron Baker and Fred Van Vleet are one of the best backcourt tandems in the country, and they combined for 36 points, nine rebounds, nine assists, six steals and just two turnovers in Wichita State's blowout win over Memphis. Discount the Shockers at your own risk.

6. Steve Masiello can design an out-of-bounds play

The Manhattan Jaspers trailed the UMass Minutemen by two points with just 0.8 seconds left in Amherst. With the ball underneath their basket, their options were limited, but head coach Steve Masiello drew up a fine play that was perfectly executed and got the Jaspers the game-tying alley-oop. It was a tremendous play, and we might not see a better out-of-bounds play all season when you factor in the game situation.

The Jaspers lost three key seniors from last year's team that made the NCAA tournament, and though they ended up falling to the unbeaten Minutemen in overtime, Masiello will likely have these guys coached for a run in the MAAC by midseason. If you're an opponent, you don't want to see the Jaspers in a tournament scenario.

7. Cinderella's to keep an eye on

Early season tournaments are a great opportunity to get schooled on potential Cinderella teams during the NCAA Tournament, and the three to keep an especially close eye on that played last night are Wofford, Northern Iowa and Stephen F. Austin. Northern Iowa got a nice overtime win on the road against a SFA team that knocked off VCU in the NCAA Tournament last year. Both of these teams will be in the tournament picture at the end of the season with their efficient and well-executed offenses.

Wofford took out Iona, another team to watch from the MAAC, with relative ease behind 20 points from senior guard Karl Cochran. The Terriors might be able to ride Cochran and scare an opponent should they make it to the dance.

8. VCU is the class of the Atlantic 10

Speakin of VCU, the Rams got away with some sloppy play and emerged with a win over Toledo. The "havoc" ended up winning out, but Toledo was ahead for a few stretches late in the second half before VCU got it together. The full pressure and crazy double-teams are a double-edged sword; while the Rams did force 21 turnovers, Toledo still was able to trade baskets with VCU for large stretches. As the season progresses, the defense will tighten behind senior guard Brionte Weber, who flirted with a quadruple-double last night: 18 points, eight rebounds, seven assists and nine steals. Find another player in the country that can put up a line like that.

9. Bruce Pearl still has work to do at Auburn

One of the bigger coaching hires in the offseason was Auburn plucking Bruce Pearl away from ESPN. Pearl immediately energized the campus and the team, but the roster still needs work. The Tigers lost 90-59 to a pretty tough Colorado team on the road. Auburn was missing star transfer Antoine Mason, but I'm not sure he would have made much of a difference. Pearl is adept at turning programs around, but he will still have his work cut out for him with an Auburn team that finished 14-16 last season with a 6-12 record in the SEC.

10. Nebraska's Terran Petteway is a dark horse Big 10 POY candidate

Big 10 talk has been dominated by Wisconsin and their talented interior players Sam Dekker and Frank Kaminsky. Branden Dawson of Michigan State has received plenty of hype as the go-to guy for the Spartans. Michigan's Caris LeVert gets rave reviews as well. But Nebraska's Terran Petteway could surprise many casual fans and come away with POY honors in the conference. The 6'6" junior is the leader for the 21st-ranked Cornhuskers and lit it up last night. Petteway dropped 23 points on Central Arkansas, and he is shooting 50% from three early on this year. He might have to start contributing in other areas a little more, but as Nebraska's go-to scorer, he is in a great position to make waves in the conference this season.

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