CHICAGO – After Michigan State finished off its thrilling four-point win over Kentucky in the first game of Tuesday night’s Champions Classic, the individual matchup everyone had spent months eagerly anticipating – Kansas’ Andrew Wiggins vs. Duke’s Jabari Parker – commenced. Simply put, the 94-83 Jayhawks' win lived up to the hype.
Parker came out firing in the first half, scoring 19 points on 6-of-10 shooting, including 4-of-5 on threes and 3-of-3 from the free-throw line. Even more impressive than his stat line was the way he scored. Parker is so versatile, sometimes it looks like he can score however he wants, from wherever he wants. With such a vast offensive repertoire, it’s easy to see why one publication once labeled him the greatest high-school basketball player since LeBron James. The Blue Devils also got seven first-half points from forward Amile Jefferson and six from point guard Quinn Cook.
The other hyped freshman on display, Wiggins, finished the opening half with just six points on 3-of-5 shooting in nine minutes; he picked up his second foul at the 9:30 mark and sat the rest of the half. Luckily for Kansas, Wiggins’ teammates stepped up to offset his relative lack of production. Forward Perry Ellis had 10 points, guard Wayne Selden had seven and point guard Frank Mason chipped in six.
Despite Parker’s lights-out performance, Duke entered halftime with only a two-point lead. The first 15 minutes of the second half provided no separation between the two teams. Kansas and Duke traded buckets, with neither side going ahead by more than five at any point. The Jayhawks appeared to be giving Duke matchup problems on the low block. Forwards such as Parker and Jefferson struggled to handle Jayhawks big men Joel Embiid, Jamari Traylor and Ellis. Still, Duke managed to keep the game close.
Kansas pulled away after a Duke timeout just under the two-minute mark. Wiggins hit a jumpshot, then Ellis stole the ball and fed Wiggins for a breakaway dunk to put the Jayhawks up 87-81.
It was a special atmosphere for the Chicago native Parker. This was a showcase game in front of a hometown crowd, and Parker – despite his team’s loss – made the most of the opportunity. College basketball fans saw a glimpse of Parker’s refined offensive game last week when he dropped 22 points against Davidson last week, but he seemed to take his game to another level Tuesday. Big games call for big performances, and Parker delivered. He finished with 27 points, nine rebounds and three steals.
Wiggins bounced back from a lackluster first half to score 22 points on 9-of-15 shooting and 10 rebounds. He entered the season as a presumptive top-three pick in the 2014 NBA draft, and he left Tuesday night with that reputation firmly intact. Wiggins and Parker put on a show, which is exactly why fans were so excited for this matchup. High-scoring, fast-paced entertaining basketball. With the possible exception of Duke partisans, didn't everybody enjoy this game?
Both of these teams look like Final Four contenders, but neither is a finished product yet. If Duke and Kansas do happen to meet in March, the result should be an even better, more entertaining game than the teams produced Tuesday. And if they don’t see each other, college basketball fans can take solace in the knowledge that they’ll be able to watch Duke and Kansas play over the next five months against other teams. Few games will be as entertaining as Duke-Kansas, but watching each team develop in the months ahead is a decent consolation prize.
Kansas v. Duke was everything fans expected it would be, but the teams' individual trajectories over the season to come should be just as exciting.