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For years, our personal mental calendar has regarded the ESPN College Hoops Tip-Off Marathon as the one true start of the college basketball season. Oh, sure, there are always games before the marathon. Technically. But for the occasional exception -- or ceremonial events like the Armed Forces Classic -- so many of those games are lopsided warmups against guarantee opponents that it has long been easier to consider the first "official" days of the college basketball season little more than an extension of exhibition play.
The opening weekend of the 2015-16 season appeared headed in precisely this direction. The schedule lacked even a single Top-25 matchup. Friday's best game on paper -- Pittsburgh vs. Gonzaga at the Armed Forces Classic -- was cancelled at halftime. LSU's brilliant freshman Ben Simmons was in action ... against overmatched McNeese State. Early Friday, most of the best teams in the country were playing mostly bad opponents and were predictably dominant. Ho-hum.
And then a crazy thing happened: College basketball's most celebrated quality -- its fabled unpredictability -- arrived earlier than ever.
Nowhere was this more evident than at Wisconsin. There are 351 teams in college basketball; a year ago, the Western Illinois Leathernecks were one of the very worst. They averaged .90 points per possession. On Friday, just after the No. 17-ranked Badgers hoisted a second-straight Final Four banner into the Kohl Center rafters, Western Illinois scored 69 points in 57 possessions en route to a two-point upset win. Earlier, a banged-up Illinois lost to North Florida at home, and NC State was rocked in Raleigh by William & Mary. Monmouth won at UCLA, Chattanooga at Georgia, Sacramento State at Arizona State. All varying degrees of crazy.
But Western Illinois? At Wisconsin?
And it didn't stop there. On Saturday, another seemingly sleepy slate of games instead produced one of the best, most surprising performances of the season: Radford's double-overtime upset of Georgetown. With three seconds left in overtime, his team trailing by one, guard Rashun Davis splashed a deep 3-pointer to give his team the 82-80 victory. He finished with 28 points on 12-of-19 shooting.
Georgetown was (is?) a fringe top-25 team. Radford was picked to finish fourth in the Big South Conference.
OK, Mr. Davis, fine. We stand corrected. The Tip-Off Marathon may offer 24-plus hours of glorious back-to-back basketball. It may offer this week's most high-profile games. It may feature NBA talent and national title contenders on the same court. But it is not the official, or unofficial, start of the 2015-16 season. Friday and Saturday were. Go figure.
What we're thinking about today:
Not that we're not excited for the marathon. Oh, we are. Which is why we've been reading pretty much every marathon preview we can get our hands on. Here are a few to get you started. Meanwhile, our favorite low-key team of the 2015-16 preseason -- San Diego State -- will face Utah's star center Jakob Poeltl in what might be our favorite low-key stop (Monday night, 9:30 p.m. ET, ESPN2) on the marathon schedule.
Duke guard Grayson Allen was, in his own words, "too serious, came out trying too hard," in disappointing preseason performances earlier this month. Apparently he has corrected this pattern: Allen opened the season with 54 combined points -- and a couple of silly dunks -- in back-to-back destructions of Siena and Bryant this weekend.
Meanwhile, Providence star Kris Dunn had ... clears throat ... 32 points, five assists, six rebounds, two blocks and eight steals in Saturday's win over Harvard. The Kris Dunn Experience is going to be awesome.
"On this rainy Friday night, in a speck-on-the-map town between Fort Worth and Abilene, Billy Clyde Gillispie coached his first college basketball game since March 7, 2012. Roughly 100 fans and exactly one sportswriter witnessed it."
There's a crucial story in the middle of our colleague Myron Medcalf's first new column of the 2015-16 season: Just 23 minutes into the season, official Karl Hess had already blown his fourth technical foul. Forget everything we said: Now the season can officially begin.