The days of top college basketball teams avoiding tough competition early in the season are ending. The NCAA is helping, but ESPN's cash may be the driving reason they will stop playing in the so-called cupcakes.
Starting next year, ESPN will launch annual doubleheaders featuring four of college hoops' marquee teams -- Duke, Kansas, Kentucky and Michigan State -- playing each other on a rotating basis. Over the three years of the contract, the doubleheaders will be at a neutral site with a round robin -- so Duke, for example, will play Michigan State in 2011 and the other two teams in the subsequent years.
The event will be billed as the "Champions Classic" and will take place in mid-November as the season kicks off. ESPN executive Nick Dawson stated that the event will serve as "a tremendous pillar for the start of the college basketball season."
The NCAA is increasingly rewarding teams that play tougher schedules by giving them some priority during the selection and seeding process for the NCAA tournament. But ESPN's payments to the teams likely do not hurt.
The event should give ESPN a prime opportunity to attach a blue-chip sponsor.
Referring to the event being held in New York, Atlanta and Chicago over the three years, Kentucky head coach John Calipari stated that it is "a unique opportunity for our fans across the nation to see us play in three major cities against top-level competition."