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Michigan State's victory over Kentucky is the net's second biggest non-conference game ever

ESPN is off to a great ratings start in college basketball, with Thursday’s marquee matchup of the country’s top two teams — Kentucky and Michigan State — drawing 4 million viewers.

The first telecast of the State Farm Champions Classic doubleheader attracted the second largest audience ever for a non-conference game on ESPN, according to Nielsen, behind only the 5.28 million who watched Memphis take on Tennessee in another matchup of top-ranked teams in February 2008.

Tipping off at 10:19 p.m. ET, the game between No. 4 Duke and No. 5 Kansas, averaged 2.98 million viewers. Combined the two games averaged 3.51 million viewers to make it the most popular Champions Classic — ahead of both last year (2.50 million) and 2011 (2.51 million).

In the local markets, the first game did a 20.3 rating in Louisville and an 8.6 in Detroit. And in the late game, Kansas City was the highest-rated market (13.5), followed by Raleigh-Durham (7.8) and Greensboro (7.6).

In adults 18-49, the first game did a 1.4 rating, and the nightcap a 1.3. The only cable program to rate higher in men 18-49 was FX’s “Sons of Anarchy.”

ESPN recently announced it will continue to televise the neutral site Champions Classic with Duke, Kansas, Kentucky and Michigan State for three additional years. The early-season event has matched four of the winningest programs against each other since 2011.

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