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Is China ready for more college hoops after Harvard-Stanford?

Harry How/Getty Images

It was sold-out at the Mercedes-Benz Arena in Shanghai when the Houston Rockets and the New Orleans Pelicans played their preseason game on Oct. 9, the first of the two NBA Global Games hosted in China this year. A month later, however, as the 18,000-seating stadium is hosting the Pac-12 men's hoops season opener, the turnout on Saturday (Friday 11 p.m. ET on ESPN2) might serve to gauge the success of the NCAA's campaign to gain influence in the Asian sports powerhouse.

The Harvard vs Stanford matchup, a sequel to last year's first Pac-12 China Game (Washington-Texas) that only sold a few hundred tickets, might enjoy a slightly better chance of exposure given the two schools' academic prestige in China as well as their well-known NBA products, such as the Brooklyn Nets' Jeremy Lin and Brook Lopez (known as a former teammate of Chinese star Yi Jianlian from 2008 to 2010).

Lin doesn't recall any discussions of an exhibition game in China when playing at Harvard, but he thinks the game has definitely grown a lot globally.

"After the NBA, college sports -- college basketball [in particular] -- is going to be big."

Lopez, a former Stanford center, says he still holds fresh memory of beating Lin's Harvard at home a few years ago.

"We definitely won that game, no question." Lopez says. "It's reality. It's not hypothetical."

To many Harvard and Stanford alumni, Saturday's game is simply a good reason for a get-together.

"A sports competition is the last thing people in China expect between the two academically strong schools," says Frank Wang, one of more than 300 Stanford alumni based in Shanghai. "So the outcome of the game is not really important."

Amy Yang, a Harvard alumnae living in Shanghai who will be at the game, wasn't into basketball when studying in the United States.

"But now it's different because there isn't any Harvard element around me in Shanghai except for a few other alumni," she said. "So I will go to the game for memory ... I hope I will get to meet more alumni at the game.

The NCAA is following in the steps of the NBA, which first introduced its Global Games to Shanghai in 2004 when the country's biggest sports ambassador -- ex-Rockets star Yao Ming -- was just on track to dominate the paint in the years coming. The NCAA is pushing aggressively to get its share of the pie by leveraging support from its local partner, the Federation of University Sports of China (FUSC), which operates under the Chinese government.

China -- under President Xi Jinping, who is known to be an avid sports fan -- is seeing a booming sports industry exemplified by heavy grassroots campaigns to invest in developing youth sports and building a national athletic infrastructure. In the private sector, online media companies are signing big broadcasting deals at home and abroad while domestic sports leagues are in a cutthroat competition to lure ex-NBA stars (Josh Smith being the most recent) and European football managers in order to draw eyeballs their games.

It's a golden opportunity for the NCAA to seize as well if they can find the next Jeremy Lin, but the road is full of challenges. Ask Ma Jian, an ex-Chinese national team forward who played for the University of Utah in the early 1990s. As the first Chinese national to play NCAA Division I basketball, Ma's bold choice was seen by many as an unorthodox move. In the past two decades, he has witnessed first-hand the vast changes in the game's landscape but still sees the shortcomings in the Chinese market.

"The system for student athletes to become professionals doesn't exist in China," says Ma, now a basketball analyst. "The quality of campus-level sports league is unpromising. I'm very excited to see what NCAA can show and bring to China -- can it help China's student athletes to find more opportunities? Can NCAA share its experiences and work with the Chinese University Basketball Association (CUBA)? It's not easy, but there is a way. You can't just come in and sell the ticket to everyone. It's a long process that requires collaboration and strategy."

The NCAA has been looking at China for a few years. With an increasing number of Chinese students studying at American universities (more than 300,000 in 2014-15), schools such as Duke and Georgetown would play some summer exhibition games in the country.

"The Chinese fan base for the NCAA is still relatively weak," cautions Li Shuangfu, co-founder of Lanxiong Sports, a leading sports business and media company. "China has had NBA China Games and Euroleague Basketball World Tour, so it is very hard for the NCAA to break the ground and grow."

Li says that even as China continues to emerge as a sports power, the NCAA should have a reasonable expectation for their immediate impact in the country and be aware that their opportunity is limited.

A household name in China, Lin says the key to expand the NCAA's outreach in China is to focus on the game itself.

"Playing games over there or bringing the game over there...just giving them the exposure to it [will be crucial]. If they have the opportunity to see these games, they will fall in love with college basketball players as well."

ESPN.com's Ohm Youngmisuk contributed to this report