CHICAGO -- In its greatest fantasies perhaps the best the Final Four can hope for is to be a passable sequel. The final weekend of college basketball simply isn't getting 1, 2, 4 and 5. And it's unlikely stars as big as Jabari Parker, Julius Randle and Andrew Wiggins all will have survived the Madness of March to reconvene at season's end. The only thing wrong with the Champions Classic on Tuesday night in Chicago is that there's only one.
Anytime you can see Duke's Jabari Parker and Kentucky's Julius Randle in one night -- in two different games, no less -- you've been blessed. Look, Randle, at 6-foot-9 and 250 pounds, is a young wildebeest. He can control college games within 12 feet of the basket. He's going to command a double-team every time he touches the ball by, oh, New Year's Day or so.
But Parker is the best player in basketball; not the best freshman, the best player. All the people who jumped off the Parker bandwagon when his foot was injured last year and his numbers plummeted and his weight (allegedly) soared need to apply for space back aboard the bandwagon. This isn't about the final score, that Kansas won the game, beating Duke 94-83. Not in November. It's about first impressions and wondering whether they'll be lasting impressions. There's nothing Parker doesn't do really, really well. He can play all the frontcourt positions and shoot the 3-ball like a 2-guard. He absolutely commands double-teams defensively, and finds teammates with ease. He can play way above the rim but has the fundamentals of a kid with lesser talent who's affixed to the floor. He scored 19 points in the first half against a Kansas team that's probably Final Four good. Hey, Andrew Wiggins is a highlight machine, and he'll get better playing for Bill Self, just the way he stepped it up Tuesday night after intermission. But if you're asking me off what we've seen so far whether its Wiggins or Parker, I'm going to tell you it's Parker. And we'll delve further to Mr. Jabari Parker in a moment.
But let's get back to the reason Tuesday night's doubleheader in Chicago was so important to college hoops. Increasingly, college basketball just doesn't matter nationally the way it used to in November. Or December. Or January. The NFL has become carnivorous. It devours all forms of sports/entertainment that dare get in its way. The playoffs have what amounts to an exclusive run. And since the Super Bowl isn't played until the first Sunday in February, college basketball gets put on a very long hold. And since the NBA and its various mini-dramas have had something of a regular-season renaissance, professional basketball has become a bigger deal, too. So, the NBA All-Star Weekend knocks college basketball back yet another week into February. The college coaches know it. So do my bosses at ESPN. The college basketball season, featuring unfamiliar freshmen, has pretty much been reduced into a six-week season, from the middle of February until the first week of April. It's been in danger of becoming a niche sport, like Wimbledon in June/July or the U.S. Open in September.
Digger Phelps, who can remember when there was actually a full college basketball season, has been in favor of getting college basketball away from the NFL, away from the 35 college bowl games. "You wake up one morning and somebody screams at you, 'Championship Week is in three weeks,' and people haven't really sampled a wonderful product," Phelps said.
So here was college basketball in early November, and not in Alaska or Hawaii, but on the mainland, in middle America, four of the five best teams in the country (everybody except third-ranked Louisville), schools that matter greatly to the history of college basketball, three of the best freshmen, 12 to 15 projected first-round draft picks (depending on which NBA scouts you talk to), a half-dozen future lottery picks. The only person who objected to the proceeding was Kentucky coach John Calipari, who said it was unfair his little darlings had to play against the mashers from Michigan State, all of whom don't automatically leave campus for the NBA at the first hint of freshman spring. What we had, in reality, was a case of Cal talking to his team, hoping it would get irritated and give an otherworldly effort against Michigan State. Cal was more than willing to take the criticism; a little birdie told me before the game Cal loves being a part of these extravaganzas because he knows the difference between college football and college hoops: basketball teams, particularly young ones, are always better off having been in these frays, even when the result is an L.
A big to-do was made, and rightfully so, about the approximately 70 NBA executives and scouts who descended on Chicago, essentially to determine who the early front-runners are for the 2014 draft. One general manager I talked to said he thought 25 of the 30 teams in the league had their general managers in attendance. Some teams had their GM, assistant GM and top scout. A huge reason this doubleheader was so great for this college basketball season is because of the three identifiable freshmen: Randle, Wiggins and Parker. While the 2013 lottery yield looks pretty pathetic (Alex Lin, Nerlens Noel and Otto Porter have yet to play a game), teams have been trying for years to trade into the 2014 lottery.
My colleague Jalen Rose said, "Imagine college basketball, a game usually defined by coaches, having a doubleheader like this defined by players …"
And the scouts already have their favorites, though it's a horse race whose leader will surely change every few games based on performance. Right now, from my conversations with scouts, it seems to be Parker and Randle. It's basketball law that every legit prospect has to remind you of somebody else, and while there's been wild speculation that Randle reminds folks of LeBron (no chance, none), I looked at Randle and saw Zack Randolph, the longtime veteran NBA forward who is relentless within 10 feet of the basket. OK, Randle is much more athletic than Randolph ever was, but it's the way Randle bangs, his ability to get off shots with defenders draped all over him that make me think of Z-Bo. When Randle hit his first seven shots of the second half, you could see folks nodding and saying, "Yep, he's the real deal." It didn't matter that Randle seemed lost the first half, just that he demanded the ball like a pro in the second half, an old-school pro who somehow knows how to play with his back to the basket. It was a give-me-the-damn-ball performance in the second half when the kid hit 8 of 9. Everybody on a tough, defensive, Tom Izzo-coached team knew Randle would get the ball and nobody could do a thing about it.
The difference between what college basketball has been for decades and what it is increasingly at the top of the pyramid is Michigan State and Kentucky, respectively … except that Izzo still builds great teams without taking players judged out of high school to be the most talented.
Randle's 27 points and 13 rebounds on most nights would have made him the biggest star. Not Tuesday night. Parker -- the way he's looked so far, anyway -- has a chance to be a transcendent player. For starters, he knows how to play, in the same sense that Steph Curry and Klay Thompson know how to play. What they have in common is that they're all sons of professional basketball players. I'll never forget the night nearly four years ago when Derrick Rose, who preceded Parker at Simeon High School in Chicago, told me I needed to go out to the South Side and watch Parker, "because he's better than I am," Rose said that night. I told Rose he was nuts, and the young Bulls guard said, "You have to see him. He can do everything."
I couldn't help but think of that conversation during the Duke-Kansas game. Remember, this is a game in which 10 guys can play at a remarkably high level. Kansas has Perry Ellis, Wayne Selden, Naadir Tharpe and Wiggins. Duke has Parker, point guard Quinn Cook, former Amile Jefferson and a kid named Rodney Hood, who also possesses big-time offensive skills. These really look like four of the five or six best teams in the country. And the freshmen, especially after Wiggins got himself together after halftime, looked like three of the top players in the country. They're identifiable, highly skilled stars who people will want to watch ... as soon as the NFL season ends.
You tune in to watch these three players, or these four teams, and you'll inevitably discover other players and teams to fall in love with -- which means the doubleheader will have lured a great many people into college basketball's tent long before February or March. Perhaps what's needed is a foursome just like this the first week of January, one put together by the matchmakers and ESPN or whoever wants to televise the proceedings. It won't always be as compelling as Kentucky-Michigan State or Duke-Kansas, and it won't always have the young stars people want to get a glimpse of now before they bolt after a year for the NBA. But clearly this is something to savor, something to look forward to no matter what else is going on in the world of sports.