Before the 2011 college basketball season began, ESPN’s executives met to discuss ideas. They knew it was always a challenge to draw attention to a sport that started during the NFL and college football seasons, so they wanted to do something different.
They thought it would be ideal if the network could televise a doubleheader in the same neutral-court venue featuring Duke, Kentucky, Kansas and Michigan State. Getting those four marquee programs together would serve as the showcase of its Tip-Off Marathon event, which ESPN had launched three years earlier on the first Tuesday of the season and featured numerous games broadcast on its networks for 24 consecutive hours. ESPN’s brass all agreed it would be a great way to promote the sport, but they then had to approach the college’s athletics departments to get their blessing.
“That’s always the most challenging aspect of creating something like this,” said Nick Dawson, ESPN’s vice president of programming and acquisitions who oversees the company’s college basketball and football coverage. “To the credit of the four schools, they all said yes. They all liked the idea of being part of something unique and special.”
On Tuesday night, the ninth annual Champions Classic takes place at Madison Square Garden in Manhattan, and it may be the most anticipated one yet. It will have the top four teams in the Associated Press’ preseason poll: No. 4 Duke plays No. 3 Kansas at 7 p.m. ET, followed by No. 1 Michigan State facing No. 2 Kentucky.
Since the event began eight years ago, it has introduced a national audience to future college stars and NBA draft picks. Four freshmen who competed in the Champions Classic were the top overall selection in the following June’s draft: Kentucky’s Anthony Davis (2012 draft) Kansas’ Andrew Wiggins (2014), Kentucky’s Karl-Anthony Towns (2015) and Duke’s Zion Williamson (2019). And 24 other freshmen who played in the Champions Classic lasted only one college season before becoming NBA lottery picks.
Although the four teams are receiving so much hype, their top-end talent isn’t as strong as it has been in previous years. Only two freshmen playing on Tuesday are projected as lottery picks in the 2020 draft, according to ESPN’s latest rankings: Kentucky power forward Kahlil Whitney (11th) and Kentucky shooting guard Tyrese Maxey (13th). Duke also has three freshmen among the top 30: power forward Matthew Hurt (16th), small forward Wendell Moore, Jr. (20th) and center Vernon Carey, Jr. (28th).
Still, despite there being no one like Davis, Towns or Williamson in this year’s Champions Classic, the event does have some premier players who have already excelled in college. Michigan State senior point guard Cassius Winston is the best of the bunch. Winston was an AP first-team All-American last season after averaging 18.8 points and 7.5 assists per game. He enters this season as the only consensus member of the AP’s preseason All-American team.
Other veterans to watch include Kansas senior center Udoka Azubuike, a 7-footer who only played nine games last season because of a right hand injury but earned the eighth-most votes for the preseason AP All-American squad; Duke sophomore point guard Tre Jones, another preseason All-American whom ESPN projects as the 19th best prospect for next June’s NBA draft; and Kansas point guard Devon Dotson, who started all 36 games last season and averaged 12.3 points per game. Kentucky also has Ashton Hagans and Immanuel Quickley, two 6-foot-3 sophomore guards who were five-star recruits coming out of high school and could become NBA draft picks.
All in all, the Champions Classic has become a highly anticipated event to kick off the season and gain some traction on a day without football games. ESPN discontinued the Tip-Off Marathon two years ago, but it remains bullish on the Champions Classic. In fact, the event was renewed last year through 2022 and will likely last even longer than that. Next year’s event takes place at the United Center in Chicago before returning to Madison Square Garden in 2021 and then going to Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis in 2022. ESPN owns and operates the Champions Classic, but Dawson called it a “five-way partnership” between the company and the four schools. He declined to comment on the financial details of the partnership.
For the first seven years of the event, the season began on the first Friday of November, and the Champions Classic was held the following Tuesday. That allowed Duke, Kentucky, Kansas and Michigan State to schedule a game before the Champions Classic if they wanted. But the NCAA changed its calendar last year and had the season start on the first Tuesday of November, so ESPN decided to move up the Champions Classic to that day.
“The coaches might tell you something different because I think they’d probably like a tune-up game before they play these guys,” said Dawson, laughing. “But I think it’s good for us and the sport to be able to come out of the gate with something this high-profile.”
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