The Champions Classic is dubbed such because the four teams involved have all won NCAA championships before. But these four programs have hoisted trophies, these four coaches have hoisted trophies because they've built programs that continually perform at a championship level.
That, and they'll all be competing for a championships this season.
There was much hype and much anticipation for Tuesday night's pair of games at the United Center: No. 1 Kentucky vs. No. 2 Michigan State and No. 4 Duke vs. No. 5 Kansas. Sure, it was a mini Final Four right here in November, but there were more reasons than the numbers in front of the team names that made this must-see TV, more reasons why being there was so special.
Namely, those reasons came in the form of a trio of unbelievably skilled freshmen. Kansas' Andrew Wiggins, Kentucky's Julius Randle and Duke's Jabari Parker (a Chicago native) were three of the four top-ranked recruits in the country this season, according to the rankings of Rivals. Already, in just one game for two of them, two games for another, they'd created so much buzz. But there was no way three 18-year-olds could all deliver on the same night in the same building was there?
Well, that's exactly what happened.
"I think that those three have a chance to all be special," Kansas head coach Bill Self said after his Jayhawks dispatched of the Blue Devils. "It's also one week into our season, and people are too giddy about certain guys because of the unknown. When guys are seen and studied and figured out, there's going to be a little bit of a roller coaster for all these young kids. It's a great freshmen class, without question. We're fortunate to have one that's talked about a lot. ... I don't think it's limited to those three guys as far as quality freshmen across America."
And, by night's end, not only would attendees and viewers see the future of basketball right before their eyes, they'd also see the present, a team relying not on the next great high school hope, a player who if the rules were different would never wear any NCAA jersey except as a fashion statement. No, this team relies on experience. Yes, even the word "senior" can describe one of its best players.
The bottom line is that Tuesday night delivered on every promise created by even the most overzealous college hoops hype machine. And, man, it was fun to watch.
The hometown hero
Parker graduated from Simeon High School six months ago. And now, the South Side kid is headlining at the United Center, the house that Jordan built. Parker's Duke Blue Devils didn't get a win Tuesday night, something that obviously concerned him the most after the fact, but the kid celebrating a homecoming of sorts put on a show.
Granted, much of that show came in the first half, but what a half it was. Parker scored 19 points in those 20 minutes, highlighted by four three-pointers and a remarkable play where he stole the ball at one end, raced to the other and then pulled a reverse layup off, getting it to sky over a pair of Kansas defenders before dropping through the basket. It was a play few have made in that building, and one of the guys who did has a statue out front.
Parker's performance was punctuated by a monster alley-oop dunk that's sure to be rolling on highlight shows for the rest of the season. After that dunk, things didn't go too well for Parker. He was switched onto defensively by Wiggins, who along with an increasingly strong Jayhawk defense shut Parker down and held him to just a couple of buckets the rest of the game. Not only that, but Parker found himself in foul trouble, and he fouled out before the game was through.
Parker's showing was excellent, though the loss had him looking squarely toward the future, toward more opportunities like this.
"It's the only stage that we expect to play on. That's why our schedule is so compact with a lot of competition. We want to prepare ourselves for the NCAA tournament and down the line in the ACC, the best conference in the whole United States. We just need to prepare ourselves."
The No. 1 prospect
If Parker was limited to one half of heroics, then Wiggins was more evenly dispersed.
Wiggins finished with 22 points, but it was four points in particular that defined his evening, as they were likely the most important of the game. With Kansas up, 83-81, in the waning minutes, Wiggins knocked down a huge jumper to push it to a two-possession game. Moments later, Duke turned the ball over, and Wiggins finished the fast break with a dunk, sending the Jayhawks up by six and effectively putting the game out of reach.
But Wiggins was also instrumental on the defensive end, slowing down Parker and making him almost ineffective in the second half, particularly down the stretch.
And doing that? That was all his idea.
"People have made a lot of Andrew's personality because he's so mild-mannered and non-demonstrative with his actions. Things look easy to him. But he is competitive," Self said. "He came to me the whole deal, 'Let me guard Jabari, I want to guard Jabari.' I said, 'That's not how we practiced, we're not going to do it that way to start out.' But about midway through the second half, 13-minute mark, I didn't put him on Jabari. He just went to guard him. I think he got a piece of a shot that possession, I said, 'I think he's probably right. I should've been listening to him the whole time.' But he is competitive, and he definitely wanted the challenge."
The big man with the big back
Randle was downright bad in the first half of Kentucky's 78-74 loss to Michigan State. The freshman big man had made one basket and had as many points as turnovers (four). Of course, he wasn't the only Wildcat who didn't perform well in the first 20 minutes, and the team faced a 12-point deficit at the half to prove it.
But the second half was completely different. Randle came out looking great, and he didn't slow up till the buzzer sounded. After being shut down by smaller defenders in the first half, he began abusing Michigan State in the post. It seemed every trip down the floor for Kentucky ended in another strong post move and successful layup for Randle. He scored 23 points in the second half, carrying the Wildcats on his back from their huge deficit, eventually tying the game late.
Kentucky never took the lead, but Randle might have been the brightest individual star in an evening full of them.
"What I loved about Randle," Michigan State head coach Tom Izzo said, "is that he gritted his teeth, he was nasty and ornery and he wanted to put them on his shoulders. And for a freshman, that speaks volumes. Nobody else did that. He completely did that. You could hear him talking, you could see it in his face, you could see it in his body language. Tough kid."
The experienced team
Lost in all the pregame hoopla surrounding these talented 18-year-olds were the Michigan State Spartans. Picked unanimously to win the Big Ten and handed the No. 2 ranking in the country, Izzo's group isn't built on raw freshman talent but rather experience in winning and winning at the highest levels.
When the Spartans upended Kentucky on Tuesday, Izzo downplayed the angle that an "old-school" formula had toppled Kentucky coach John Calipari's method of bringing in one-year superstar rentals. Whether that's what Tuesday proved or not is up for discussion.
But though the Wildcats did make a furious second-half comeback, the experienced team held them off and will likely be the new No. 1 team in the nation when the next batch of rankings are released.
When Kentucky's comeback reached its apex, with the game tied, the Spartans' experienced players made the big plays that experienced players make en route to a championship season. Keith Appling, a senior, knocked down a corner three. Moments later, sophomore Gary Harris — the preseason Big Ten Player of the Year — picked off a pass and went in for a layup to put Michigan State up by five.
The Spartans went on to win the game by four, and though it likely could've been more had the first half better carried over to the second, this win might be the most impressive of the entire college basketball season if these two teams continue to fight for the No. 1 spot in the rankings.