Last night was the night college basketball fans and NBA scouts had been waiting for since April. The Champions Classic, a three year agreement between Duke, Kansas, Kentucky, and Michigan State, featured the three most-touted college freshmen in America - Jabari Parker, Julius Randle, and Andrew Wiggins. All three athletes had received a fair bit of attention before the season began with a plethora of media interviews, television appearances, and magazine coverage. Despite all the early attention and speculation, there could be no true measure of each star's talent until they were all featured in a national spotlight. And while Jabari Parker and Julius Randle stole the stat-lines with their explosive offensive performances, Andrew Wiggins stole the night by leading the Jayhawks to victory - the only one of the three freshman to come away with the W.
Wiggins was the Number 1 recruit for this incoming freshman class, a class that has been considered by many to be the best of all time. Yet, Wiggins was perhaps the most mysterious of the three super-stars coming out of high school due to his calm, mild-mannered demeanor. Sure, everyone had seen the highlight reels of Wiggins absolutely killing his high school opponents and breaking legs left and right. But fans, NBA Scouts, and even Bill Self questioned whether that same level of talent would show in the college game, especially given Wiggins's commitment on every play. One NBA scout stated that Wiggins "is not always playing hard and motivated. That scares people. That scares me a little. You need a gym rat, someone that absolutely loves it. It's 82 games. It's tough. Those guys are harder to win with than guys who love it."
Following Kansas's game against Fort Hays State, even Bill Self commented on Wiggins's lack of hustle, stating that Wiggins "didn't seem as engaged as he should be." Tuesday night, however, that was not the case.
The Champions Classic match-up presented the perfect opportunity for Jabari Parker to showcase why he should have been the number one recruit out of high school - Not only had Parker outplayed Wiggins in their respective first games as collegiate athletes, but Parker was returning to his hometown of Chicago. And for the first 30 minutes, it was Parker who owned the head-to-head contest against Wiggins. In the first half, Parker made an outstanding case to be the first pick of the 2014 NBA Draft. Parker showed a variety of skills, slashing to the basket with ease, pulling up for the mid-range jumper over his defenders (a la Kevin Durant), and stroking the 3 with ease. Parker's first-half performance was so outstanding that it prompted Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski to use such words as "terrific" and "sensational" to describe the performance. Oh, and there was also this:
So where was Wiggins while Parker was going off? On the bench with 2 fouls. In total, the Duke vs. Kansas game saw 53 fouls. Sitting for a long stretch in the first half may have been the medicine Wiggins needed to spark that hustle NBA scouts were lamenting about. After passively watching Parker torch the nets for 19 in the first half, Wiggins came out in the second with abandon. After only scoring 6 points in the first 20 minutes, Wiggins had 16 in the second half, including 4 points on consecutive plays - a step back jumper which reminded many of Jordan's for UNC in 1982, and a break-away dunk that also saw Parker pick up his fifth and final foul with just over a minute left in the game.
While Wiggins had a more than satisfactory second half effort offensively, it was his poise and defensive effort which really made his performance stand apart. Early in the game, Wiggins had implored Bill Self to allow him to guard Parker. However, due to foul trouble, Self was wary of making said decision: "People have made a lot about Andrew's personality, because he's so mild-mannered and non-demonstrative. But he is competitive. That dude wanted [to guard Parker]," stated Self. Despite his eagerness to go mano-a-mano with Parker, Self was still reluctant.
Understanding the necessity of the decision, though, Wiggins decided to put matters in his own hands and started guarding Parker without Self's approval: "I didn't put him on Jabari. He just went over to guard him, and I think got a piece of his shot. I thought, 'Maybe I should have listened to him.' " By the end of the game, the maybe was a definitely. Over the last 10 minutes, Parker was essentially non-existent on the floor, finishing the second half with a total of 8 points.
When asked about his unilateral decision to guard Parker, Wiggins replied, “It’s just all pride. You take pride in what you do, if it’s offense or defense.” It is this attitude from Wiggins that makes him one of, if not the, premiere athletes in college basketball. Raw athletic talent and physical attributes are good, but a humble attitude and willingness to work on both sides of the ball make greatness.
Overall, Tuesday night's Champions Classic proved one thing - College basketball is back and as amazingly awesome as ever.
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