CHICAGO -- It was a night about freshmen if you wanted it to be. A good hour before tipoff of the Kentucky-Michigan State opener of the Champions Classic, I came upon an NBA general manager -- one whose team is built, more or less, to contend for the 2014 Draft Lottery -- occupying a prime courtside seat at the United Center. He was watching the Wildcats' mundane warmup drills with what really seemed like a twinkle in his eye, no doubt imagining what Julius Randle might look like in his lineup, and comparing that to what Duke's Jabari Parker might look like, or Kansas' Andrew Wiggins. I openly wondered if Wiggins, who had played casually in preseason workouts and in his first real college game, would live up to his AAU-ball rep as a big-stage performer when the Jayhawks met the Blue Devils in the nightcap. "Not many bigger stages than this one," the GM said.
Sixty-seven other NBA evaluators had joined him for what was essentially a pre-Predraft Camp on a Tuesday night in November. Whether any of them left closer to a final opinion on who should be the No. 1 pick is unlikely. Randle went for 27 and 13 in a loss and looked like a beast. Parker went for 27 and 9 in a loss and looked breathtakingly skilled. Wiggins went for 22 and 8 in a win while looking like far from a finished product. The NBA crowd will be debating over those three kids until late June, and can you blame them? It's a good debate.
Still, for those of us who cover college hoops not as a Predraft Camp but as an actual sport, freshmen turned out not to be the most important part of the Champions Classic. This event was like a four-months-early Final Four, and the most impressive team was full of players who've evolved in two, three or four seasons. By knocking off top-ranked Kentucky, 78-74, No. 2 Michigan State established itself as the early national title favorite -- and it did so by giving just seven minutes of playing time to a freshman.
The last time we saw the Spartans' Gary Harris on a big stage, it was March, in the Sweet 16 in Indianapolis. He had been assigned to guard Duke senior Seth Curry, who came off a maze of screens and went off for six threes in a Blue Devils' win. "He kind of took me to school today," Harris said then of Curry, who now plays for the Warriors -- the Santa Cruz Warriors of the NBDL. Last season, Harris was a 6-foot-4 freshman getting lit up by a diminutive future D-Leaguer. He was the No. 25 player in the Class of 2012 and a five-star prospect, but his role in Michigan State's rotation was as a kid who mostly just took threes, and did not drive the ball or get mixed up in scrums for rebounds or scrap like mad on defense. The reason: A nagging shoulder injury had turned him into the shell of the attacking star he was in high school and AAU. "You have not seen the Gary Harris I recruited yet," Spartans coach Tom Izzo warned after that loss to Duke.
On Tuesday, we saw the Gary Harris that Izzo recruited. Kentucky started three guards projected to be first-rounders in 2014 or 2015 -- the twins Andrew and Aaron Harrison, and James Young -- and Harris was better than all of them, scoring 20 points on 7-of-14 shooting. The sophomore version of Harris blew by half the Kentucky team on a one-man fastbreak midway through the first half, setting the tone for a game in which the Spartans outscored the Wildcats 21-2 in fastbreak points. ("We've been trying to run since last year," he said, "but this year we're actually doing it.") He attacked from the wings, and went fearlessly at UK center Willie Cauley-Stein in order to finish at the rim. Harris also made a crucial steal of an inbounds pass by Randle (who made a freshman mistake) late in the second half. It was converted into a layup that put Michigan State up 71-66 and halted the Wildcats' most serious rally.
"I think it can kind of be appreciated," Izzo said, in somewhat of an understatement, "how much [Harris] played with bad shoulders last year."
Harris should be appreciated, after Tuesday, as as much of an All-America candidate as Randle, Parker or Wiggins.
Branden Dawson's freshman year ended worse than Harris' did. In Michigan State's regular-season finale against Ohio State in March 2012, the 6-6 swingman suffered a torn ACL in his left knee. Without him, the Spartans lost in the Sweet 16 of the NCAAs to Louisville. Dawson miraculously recovered in time to return to the starting lineup at the outset of the following season, but his offensive rebounding and scoring efficiency numbers dropped. He looked more like a role player than a former five-star, No. 20-overall ranked prospect.
As a junior here in the Champions Classic, Dawson's role was to make huge plays against future Lottery Picks. For highlight purposes, the best was his exclamation point on the 10-0 rally that opened the game. With 16:52 left in the first half, Dawson rebounded a missed three by Aaron Harrison, heaved an outlet pass to Denzel Valentine ... and then outraced all of the Wildcats in order to receive Valentine's lob pass for a dunk. For winning purposes, the best Dawson moment was the game's final bucket. His tip-in of Valentine's missed layup with five seconds left gave the Spartans an insurmountable, four-point lead.
For that and many other hustle plays, Izzo called Dawson the game's "unsung hero." And then the coach used a familiar line: "Brandon Dawson is starting to play more like the guy I recruited."
Michigan State's senior point guard, Keith Appling, was also a big-time recruit. He had four stars and a No. 38 overall ranking from Rivals.com back in 2010. He got minutes as a freshman playing alongside senior Kalin Lucas in a dual-point-guard backcourt, but Appling's national rep didn't amount to much. The following summer he went with the U.S. team to the FIBA Under-19 World Championships in Latvia, and didn't start a single game, relegated to an off-the-bench role behind Memphis' Joe Jackson, who had his own struggles with becoming a serviceable point guard. Appling spent his sophomore year trying to evolve into more of a distributor for Michigan State, and some of his junior year weathering deep shooting slumps. He seemed destined to be regarded as a good-but-not-great college point guard who, for personality reasons, never came out of his shell and became a classic floor leader.
On Tuesday, at the Spartans' pregame meal at their hotel, Appling listened to a short speech from one of their alums, a guy named Magic Johnson. "He told us that our experience was what would help us against Kentucky," Appling said. That seemed more directed at him than anyone else: even though he was 0-for-3 on attempts to reach the Final Four, in terms of games and minutes played, he would be the most experienced guy on the floor. A few hours later, he would play the most well-rounded, impressive game of his career, scoring 22 points, grabbing eight rebounds, dishing out eight assists and recording four steals, and relentlessly pushing the ball ahead in transition.
It was Appling and not the Wildcats' Andrew Harrison, a possible top-10 pick next season, that was the dominant point guard on the floor. And it was Appling that tried to downplay what had happened afterward by saying, "It's a great win, but at the same time, we didn't accomplish anything tonight." That's when Izzo, sitting next to him in the press conference, interceded and said, "Didn't accomplish anything? You got a W. You got it done."
Appling was asked about the reasons for his evolution. He talked about watching tape of point guards like Tony Parker and Chris Paul, but more so about "growing up on and off the court" in his time at Michigan State. "It's a program where you get better each year," Appling said. "You get better as a person and it helps you become a better basketball player." He sounded, for maybe the first time, like the leader of an elite team. Hearing this made Izzo happy. "I don't think we give [as many] chances to let kids grow up off the court," he said. "It's a shame that we've sped the process up so fast. God bless the kids that are good enough to go [pro after one season]. ... It gets so much attention because Johnny [Kentucky coach John Calipari] does such a good job of it. But that's not really the norm."
Freshmen of Randle, Parker and Wiggins' ilk are exotic creatures. They are specimens to be scouted by roving packs of NBA personnel guys, and celebrated by the rest of us -- because how can you not enjoy having them around? But the norm, as it always will be, is a kid who needs a few seasons before he can flourish. And the best team in college basketball, right now, is one that needed time to grow up.