The clock strikes midnight, sort of

And we're off.

Midnight Madness has become more kid friendly with bedtime-appropriate, early- evening celebrations, no longer holding firm to the exact moment the clock strikes midnight on the closest Saturday to October 15th.

Now, the pep rallies and sloppy scrimmages can begin at 7:00 p.m. on the closest Friday to the October starting date, making the term "Midnight" nothing more than a catchy marketing slogan.

This is the type of information you can expect this season From The End of The Bench. Unlike the freshmen not yet familiar with Michigan State's off-ball overplay or North Carolina's run-and-gun spacing structure, I am in midseason form. Enter wisecrack here.

In any event, "Midnight Madness" officially kicked off the 2011-2012 college basketball season, and it started with a whirlwind of activity and intrigue. From the conference realignment headlines seemingly altering the game's future landscape at the top of every hour to discussions of new faces and old friends on the sidelines and the court, college basketball has never dominated the news cycle to such a degree this early in the season.

Perhaps the NBA will eventually get its act together, or as TSN NBA Editor John McMullen suggests, outside influences will re-create a Wall Street tent town with 'Occupy NBA' and force the league owners' hands.

But at this point in time, college basketball has a golden opportunity to showcase its early-season product at a time normally reserved for gambling junkies and readers of this column. And it is fitting that the game has restructured its schedule to broadcast packaged marquee matchups that provide a de facto start to the season (more on that later).

Normally, most questions center about bubbles and brackets, as casual viewers tune in just before Valentine's Day in an effort to beef up on injuries, three-point killers and teams that fit the moniker of Cinderella. This year, things could be different. The NBA could be gone until at least Christmas, and how much time will the general sports audience invest in the league if the lockout seeps into 2012? Yes, weekends will still be spent on college football and flex players, but what else are you going to do on weeknights, during Thanksgiving and Christmas breaks?

Catch up on 90210? Doubtful. Watch hockey? Even more implausible.

College basketball has also helped its brand with two signature events to kick off the season. North Carolina and Michigan State will play on an aircraft carrier. Yes, two of the game's storied programs will tip-off a November 11th contest aboard a military vessel. Pretty cool. The Spartans are also part of the brand new Champions Classic, which gives us a first look at Kentucky's heralded freshmen class, Duke's Austin Rivers and a Kansas team with a lot to prove (like a snub from my Summer Fine 15).

Remember when the media, without a veteran trump card to play, pulled North Carolina freshman Harrison Barnes from the deck and labeled him a first-team All-American before he ever played a collegiate game last season? He struggled with his stroke and the expectations at the outset, but the sophomore Barnes is a unanimous preseason All-American entering 2011-12.

The best players aren't a mystery this year. We all know what we are getting with Ohio State's Jared Sullinger, Pittsburgh's Ashton Gibbs and Vanderbilt's Festus Ezeli. And it is pretty to watch. And in the cases of the unexpected (Kentucky, Duke's point guard position, Arizona post-Derrick Williams) there is a level of expectation with those teams, a high bar that makes young players' quest to reach it even more intriguing.

Yes, just one season after so much uncertainty, a dark cloud of recruiting and a level of play best described as sloppy and unpolished (especially early), college basketball is on its way back, placed squarely in the limelight to fill the void left by a bunch of wealthy athletes and owners just trying to get wealthier -- sounds like the Republican Party.


1. Reports point to the Big East, on its last viable lifeline, inviting Houston, SMU and Central Florida as all-sports members and Boise State and Air Force in football only. Temple was also in the discussion, but it has been said that Villanova is making a strong attempt to box the Owls out of the discussion. Now, that isn't Brotherly Love.

2. Kentucky will be raw, but the adjective is not one lost on Wildcat Nation during head coach John Calipari's tenure. When you bring in the best recruits three years running, there is always a good chance those players will run right in, and right out, of Lexington after one season. Top-ranked recruits at three positions (point guard Marcus Teague, small forward Michael Kidd- Gilchrist and power forward Anthony Davis) will surround sophomore forward Terrence Jones -- who, while at times inconsistent, showed flashes of stardom last season. With some polish (Jones) and patience (trio of freshmen), Kentucky could, to recite a regular refrain, be very dangerous by February, but no matter what, it will elicit discussion. As Calipari said at Midnight Madness, "We do more than move the needle. We are the needle."

3. John Henson started North Carolina's Midnight Madness scrimmage by draining a 15-foot jumper. If he consistently does that all season, game, set, match. The Tar Heels had some deficiencies to shore up in the offseason, namely face- up games and some muscle for both big men (Henson and Tyler Zeller) and more consistent play from their bench. Roy Williams, fresh off a contract extension through 2018, brought in highly-regarded prospects James Michael McAdoo and P.J. Hairston, and both will have plenty of time to adjust, which can only bode well for their progress come March.

4. ESPN's Hubert Davis has thrown the first punch, calling Vanderbilt too "country club" to be successful. How the Commodores respond will tell tales of their fortitude and lasting power late into the season. Davis' words were a little strong, especially before practice even began, but they struck at a softness many basketball people pinpoint as the Commodores' March downfall. The talent is obviously there, so is the veteran leadership and the experienced head coach, now Vanderbilt needs to spend the majority of its practice time communicating, developing a closeness and mental toughness that will serve it well down the line.

5. Injuries and suspensions abound as head coaches begin the task of meshing cohesive units for early-season tournaments. Washington may have to hope freshman point guard Tony Wroten Jr. lives up to head coach Lorenzo Romar's lofty Magic Johnson comparison after one of the backcourt mates to show him the way, senior guard Scott Suggs, underwent surgery on a broken bone in his right foot that will sideline him for 3-to-4 months. The sharpshooter was third in the Pac-10 [now Pac-12] in three-point percentage last season, and averaged 7.4 points per game. Speaking of sharpshooters, Notre Dame's Tim Abromaitis will miss the first four games of the season stemming from head coach Mike Brey's misunderstanding of an NCAA rule. Abromaitis played in two exhibition games during his sophomore season, but was withheld from the regular season to preserve an extra year of eligibility. Coaches can do that with freshmen, not sophomores. Abromaitis will miss games against Detroit and three lower-level programs with "State" attached to their names. He will return for a November 21 contest with Missouri. Finally, Tu Holloway may really have to do it all on his own. Xavier suspended its leading post presence, center Kenny Frease, indefinitely for not fulfilling team responsibilities. Frease averaged 11.7 points and 7.1 rebounds per game last season, and the Musketeers were the media favorite to win the Atlantic 10 this season.


This column will appear each Monday through April's national championship game, complete with the Fine 15, 5 Notes to Know, Tweets of the Week and a Look Ahead. Other topical pieces will be posted as the news dictates. Also, you can follow me all season for breaking news, and 140-character analysis at my Twitter account (@jtrex0830). As always, the inbox is always open at, and reader comments and questions will be posted in this space. I'm looking forward to another season From The End of The Bench.