Monday, August 29, 2011

Signs of the Off Season 2011-05 -- ESPN Feeds the Basketball Jones

Break Out Your Track Shoes, We Are Running a Marathon
Irene dominated the headlines going into the weekend, but thanks to the basketball-focused crew at Rush the Court, ESPN's Friday release of a preliminary Marathon Day lineup and schedule did not go completely unnoticed. The Marathon is scheduled for Tuesday November 15 and will include 19 NCAA Division 1 games (17 men and two women), to be broadcast over four outlets (ESPN, ESPN2, and ESPNU), over (at least) a 25 hour period. In addition the World Wide Leader promises a one hour "College GameDay" to be broadcast at 6pm, as the teaser to the feature games, Duke vs. Michigan State (at 7pm) and Kentucky vs Kansas (at 9pm).

In keeping with the tradition, ESPN will kick off the basketball festival with a midnight game, this year's honors going to Washington State and Gonzaga (the second consecutive marathon in which a West Coast Conference team opens against a BCS conference team), which will be followed by eight consecutive games, all broadcast on ESPN and The games will suspend for the season's first "Game Day" feature. To capitalize on the prime time slots, the WWW will resume at 7:00pm with (at least) five more games distributed via their ESPN, ESPN2, and ESPNU outlets, each to begin at the top of the hour. The action begins at midnight 11/15 with a PAC-12/WCC matchup on the West Coast. St. Mary's makes the marathon for the second consecutive year, though in a less desirable 2am slot, as the Gaels play Northern Iowa of the Missouri Valley Conference. The Hawaii Rainbow Warriors make their annual appearance at 4am when they host South Alabama of the Sun Belt Conference, before the coverage moves to the East Coast to pick up the Drexel (CAA) versus Rider (MAAC) game at 6am.

Winners & Losers
The womens' game is a big winner with two games carried on the secondary outlets in the late afternoon hours. Leading off the women's slate is a Louisville-Texas A&M game at 4pm, followed by the second game, which will overlap the Game Day feature on ESPN. The Tennessee-Miami game should draw a fair amount of attention, as Tennessee's Pat Summitt will coach her first regular season game on the heels of her diagnosis of early-onset Alzheimer’s disease.

ESPN-sponsored early season invitationals -- should be a big winner. ESPN has invested heavily in the November (Thanksgiving-based) early season invitational tournaments, and the preliminary (campus-based) rounds for those tournaments have been fodder for the marathon feeding frenzy, with a handful of made-for-tv matchups in the prime-time slots. While ESPN has often gone to the non-BCS conferences for opponents (versus BCS opponents) to fill the off-hours slots, this marathon seems to rely heavily on the ESPN-sponsored invitationals, as the network will showcase seven of the preliminary games in the CBE Classic, the NIT Tip-Off, EA Sports Maui Invitational and the Legends Classic. The NIT Tip-Off will show four games alone. Those early season invitationals should get a good deal of free publicity during the games. If that does not boost ticket sales, it will at least put those teams in front of the public and media. In addition to the invitationals, ESPN has also put together three made-for-tv matchups using State Farm as the sponsor.Those three games straddle the primetime viewing slots and feature perennial powers Duke, Florida, Kentucky and Kansas (men) along with Miami and Tennessee (women).

The BCS Conferences -- setting aside the women's games for a moment, the "conference count" based on ESPN's announcement...

Big XII4Baylor, Kansas, Ok St., Texas
Pac-123Cal. Stanford, Wash St.
ACC2Duke, Va. Tech
Big Ten2Mich. St., Ohio State
Big East2Syracuse, WVU
SEC2Florida, Kentucky
West Coast2Gonzaga, St. Mary's
Ohio Valley2Austin Peay, Morehead St.
Atlantic 101Rhode Island
Mount. West1San Diego St.
Missouri Valley1No. Iowa
West. Athl.1Hawaii
Sun Belt1So. Alabama
Atl. Sun1Belmont
Southern1Coll. of Charleston
MAC1Kent St.
SWAC1Ark. Pine Bluff
TBDs3Opponents unannounced

If the Atlantic Coast Conference, the SEC (or the Big East for that matter) did not get many teams in the marathon, at least Duke pulled a prime-time slot on ESPN. Kentucky and Florida kick off in prime-time, with the Wildcats on ESPN and the Gators on ESPN2. Syracuse on the other hand will televise on with an unannounced opponent and unknown time slot. Three opponents, all in the early season invitational field, were not announced Friday.

California, Tennessee & Kentucky -- California placed four teams in the marathon field while the Volunteer and Blue Grass states had three apiece. Of the other 47 states, Ohio and Washington supplied two teams apiece, while 28 states have no team in the field. Notable exclusions among the states...Illinois, Indiana, Missouri, Wisconsin, Arizona and Maryland.

Northeastern Basketball -- appears to be one of the losers this time around. While the northeast pulled down the 6am slot again (Drexel at Rider -- will Ray Floriani be able to get to Rider that early?), the marathon moves south and west for the 8am and 10am games. Drexel is the only major city-based team in the northeast corredore (Boston-New York City-Philadelphia-Baltimore-Washington DC) to place a team in the marathon. Four northeast teams, Rider (6am versus Drexel), West Virginia (10am) Rhode Island (4pm from Texas) and Syracuse (TBD), in addition to Drexel, made the marathon field.

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