This year’s Champions Classic in Chicago will be one of the most anticipated tip-offs in the history of the sport
In late 2010, a three-year deal was agreed to by four major college basketball programs to compete against one another at the beginning of the regular season starting in November of 2011. These early season decal-soaked events in which schools play out of conference are littered all over the winter months, but it was the star power of each of the four schools that agreed to participate that perked the ears of many, including my own. When they called it the Champions Classic they weren’t kidding because they got a murderer’s row of prestigious programs. The four chosen to duke it out in 2011, 2012, and 2013 were Kansas, Duke, Kentucky, and Michigan State, with the inaugural edition taking place in Madison Square Garden. Combining the sponsorship of State Farm Insurance with a prime time spot on ESPN, college hoops fans finally had something that had worked to rousing success in college football and the NBA: marquee match ups to tip-off the regular season.
Sure, we have seen teams over the years play big time games against top ranked opponents in the early going. Most of them are sponsored tournaments like the N.I.T. at the Garden, the always fun Maui Invitational, the Big Ten/ACC Challenge, or the more recent Old Spice Classic. The storied North Carolina/Kentucky game in early December is a fantastic exception to the rule, especially their pro-filled classic in 2011. But when you think of the historical regular season showdowns like 1968’s Game of the Century or last year’s Indiana/Michigan contest, the most memorable ones are conference rivalries or out-of-conference games scheduled later in the season when teams are battle-tested and not as rusty. You know that what you see in November is merely a hint of what you will see out of these same teams in March, or maybe April. I remember a heavily hyped UConn team losing to Georgia Tech 77-61 in their fourth game of the season in the 2003 N.I.T. Both teams matched up once more in the national title game five months later, and UConn flattened Georgia Tech that time around.
Sometimes, however, you get lucky enough to see a preview of what is to come in their early season games, like we got in the first Champions Classic in New York City. The media attention was on Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski, who defeated Michigan State by 5 to win his 903rd game, passing his mentor and all-around nice guy Bobby Knight for the most coaching wins all-time. But it was the later game that turned out to be sign of things to come, as top-ranked Kentucky faced off with a Kansas team that had lost most of their starters from the previous season and wasn’t even favored to win the Big XII by writers. Thomas Robinson and Jeff Withey played valiantly in the game, but it was Anthony Davis and his punctuating dunk that had the last laugh, beating the Jayhawks by 10 points to finish off the event. What seemed like a sluggish, forgettable beat-down on paper, though, turned out to be a blessing in disguise. When Kentucky powered its way to the national title game in New Orleans with only two losses all year, who else would be standing in the way but the same, much improved Kansas team led by Bill Self that they had outpaced all those months before? Luckily for Wildcat fans, the story stayed the same as Kentucky beat them again (this time by 8) to win it all.
While Kentucky and Kansas danced with fate from the start of the regular season to the final horn in the Superdome in April, Duke and Michigan State, the two teams who had played earlier that night, went in different directions. Michigan State dropped to 0-2 after that game and losing to #1-ranked North Carolina on an aircraft carrier the week before. But as any fan of Tom Izzo can tell you, what didn’t kill the Spartans made them stronger as they rolled through the rest of their non-conference schedule and went on to win a share of the very tough Big 10 Conference. Michigan State, led by their do-it-all senior Draymond Green, finished 29-8 and wound up with a #1 regional seed before losing in the Sweet 16 to Louisville (who would lose in the Final Four to rival Kentucky). But no one would have predicted that kind of success for an MSU squad that looked dead on their feet to start the season. Duke, on the other hand, was a highly ranked team once more after their win over Izzo’s Spartans and put together another excellent season at 27-7, but it turned out that the #2 seed they attained in the NCAA Tournament was a giant bullseye. The Blue Devils, led by one-and-doner Austin Rivers, wound up suffering the hellish nightmare of being one of the few #2 seeds to lose in the first round of the tournament after falling to C.J. McCollum’s Lehigh squad to the delight of many Duke haters. The media was quick to label that year’s Blue Devils as overrated or overpraised. Duke may have won the battle in Madison Square Garden that night, but the other three teams definitely went farther in the war.
No matter what lay ahead for those four titans of college basketball that season, the first Champions Classic was considered across the board as an undeniable success. ESPN scheduled it as the bookend for their annual college hoops all-day marathon, national media gave it first-rate coverage due to the NBA being locked out at the time, and the ratings were encouraging. When year two came around in late 2012 for the gala, they moved from the Garden to the spacious, seat-filling Georgia Dome in Atlanta, which was hosting the Final Four at the end of the season. Writers were already twirling around the notion that we could have the same four teams playing on November 13th clashing again for all the marbles in April. The Dome did not sell out, but nearly 23,000 fans showed up to watch early regular season basketball, which seemed highly unlikely not that long ago. The last game on the queue was going to be Duke taking on Kentucky, but things took a funny turn that year, as well. Duke was ranked in the top ten at that point, but it was generally perceived that with the loss of Rivers, Andre Dawkins, and Miles Plumlee, it would be somewhat of a down year for Coach K.
Meanwhile, Kentucky lost their top six scorers to the NBA Draft, but head coach John Calipari was ready to unleash another top recruiting class full of fresh faces for college basketball nation to gawk at. Replacing Wooden Award winner Anthony Davis was #1 recruit Nerlens Noel at center, while Kentucky fans stared at the YouTube montages for Alex Poythress, Willie Cauley-Stein, and Archie Goodwin. Now it was time to see if the latest young guns out of Lexington could match the season-long dominance that last year’s national champions displayed in this same event. The answer, it turned out, was a definitive “No.” Although Duke’s match-ups with Kentucky are very rare and always call back to that epic 1992 Regional Final (considered the greatest game ever played), this game was not as competitive as the Blue Devils ran ahead in the second half and took a 75-68 victory over the Wildcats. With all the hype surrounding Kentucky’s freshmen, it was the seniors on Duke’s side (Seth Curry, Mason Plumlee, and Ryan Kelly) that stole the spotlight at the end of the night.
Similar to Duke and Michigan State the previous year, the Wildcats and Blue Devils would travel very different roads at season’s end, one of which few expected. Duke went on to gain a #1 ranking in December and January before finishing 30-6, including a much-ballyhooed Elite Eight rematch between Kryzyzewski and Rick Pitino where they lost badly to eventual national champ Louisville. However, it was Kentucky that suffered a fate even worse than what Duke went through the year before. As the losses continued to mount and Noel suffered a torn ACL in a conference game against Florida, it became increasingly likely that despite their presumed clout, Kentucky was going to be on the wrong end of the tournament bubble for the first time under Coach Cal. Reports of immaturity began to surface as Kentucky lost in the SEC Tournament, wound up in the not-so-desired N.I.T., and proceeded to lose in the first round to small school Robert Morris. Noel and Goodwin declared for the draft while Kyle Wiltjer and Ryan Harrow transferred out of the school in the offseason, leaving Calipari to look forward to the next group of NBA prospects on his carousel.
Although the Duke/Kentucky game hogged up a lot of the media blitz simply because of their namesakes, it was the earlier game between Kansas and Michigan State that I was drawn towards. Going into the season, both schools were ranked in the polls with a lot of horses from the previous year still in the race. Kansas lost Thomas Robinson and Tyshawn Taylor, but everyone else was back along with the long-awaited debut of diaper dandy Ben McLemore. Meanwhile, Michigan State lost their de facto scorer in Draymond Green but returned key players like Branden Dawson, Adreian Payne, and Keith Appling. MSU was also debuting a highly ranked recruit in the sweet shooting Gary Harris to counter McLemore. While we got the lowest scoring game of the four played in the event’s short history, it was Tom Izzo’s team (and a nifty lay-up by Appling) getting the best of Bill Self’s higher ranked Jayhawks in a 67-64 win that was tightly played from beginning to end. After leaving the Georgia Dome, the 2012-13 season was very kind for both Kansas and Michigan State, but unfortunately, neither amounted to a return trip to Atlanta for the Final Four. Kansas lost in overtime to Trey Burke and the Michigan Wolverines in the Sweet 16. In the same round later that night, MSU lost by 10 points to the same team that dropped them in the first Champions Classic: The Duke Blue Devils. It wasn’t their turn to play each other that year, but they still found a way to clash in the NCAA Tournament.
We now reach the final official year of the contract that Kansas, Duke, Michigan State, and Kentucky signed up for with the Champions Classic heading to the United Center, where a statue of Michael Jordan soaring through the air awaits all who enter there. Most expected a great turnout for the event in a basketball-rich city like Chicago, but there are a handful of factors going into the 2013-14 season that might make this Champions Classic the most memorable college basketball tip-off in recent memory. All four teams will be ranked in the top five of the national poll going into November 12th , which has yet to happen in the last three years. Just the thought of having four of the five best college basketball teams in the country facing off in the same building against one another on one night is enough to make you drool. In pro wrestling terms, this is as close as you can come to a college basketball super card this early into the season, and tickets for the games sold out in record time.
All four teams are ranked highly for different reasons, the most traditional of which this season would be Michigan State. From the 2012-13 squad that finished in the top ten and fought in a loaded Big 10, everyone except for big man Derrick Nix is back on board, including three NBA prospects in Harris, Dawson, and Payne. Payne and Harris were convinced by Izzo to walk away from NBA money with the assurance that they were on the verge of greatness if they stuck around in East Lansing, which they did. Don’t forget about their senior leader Appling and dynamo guard Denzel Valentine. Izzo’s best teams have always been the ones who match his emotional toughness and are supplied with pros, and this team fits that bill perfectly. The Big 10 came close to winning the national title last year for the first time since Michigan State did it in 2000, but rival Michigan fell short at the end. Now it is time to see if the Spartans and their battle-tested talent can pull an encore. Izzo is known for being unafraid of big time challenges for his team, and boy does John Calipari have one in store for him this year.
As Kentucky fans struggled to fathom how last season’s freshmen could not even reach the NCAA Tournament, it did not take them long to turn that frown upside down as Calipari assembled what some experts are calling the most talented high school recruiting class of all time. The Wildcats nabbed a record six McDonald’s All-Americans, including the top ranked player at point guard, shooting guard, power forward, and center. The only other two teams to have 3 top ten recruits or more in the same class were the Kentucky crew that won it all in 2012 and Michigan’s famed Fab Five. Clearly, the hype meter is stuck at the top for Big Blue Nation. But even for the most worrisome of fans, that is a group of college kids to die for, and to think that even half of them will be back next season is almost funny. Point guard was a leaky position for Kentucky last year, so here comes Andrew Harrison and his twin brother Aaron to run the dribble-drive offense at Rupp Arena. Dakari Johnson and Marcus Lee are 6’9” or taller and are a perfect combo of strength and athleticism in the paint. James Young is already considered by many as a 2014 lottery pick at small forward.
But the crown jewel of this class, and most likely Kentucky’s go-to player, will be Julius Randle. A sensational power forward with finesse moves at 6’10” to go with his above the rim game, Randle won three state titles in Texas and was hounded by schools like Kansas, Texas, and Florida to go there before he put on the Wildcats cap in late March. For many months, Randle was ranked by Scout and Rivals as the #1 recruit in the country, and when you check out his performances in the Jordan Brand Classic and McDonald’s All-American Game, you can see why. Throw in the fact that Poythress and Cauley-Stein return, and you have a team that is the preseason #1. But who better to go toe to toe with the most talented crop of freshmen ever than a Michigan State team with the one thing Kentucky does not yet have: a college resume. Izzo and Cal have already had a war of words as we inch closer to this much-anticipated game. Michigan State/Kentucky will be the perfect example of experience versus youth, and tons of pros to enjoy on both ends.
You would think that a game heavily hyped and brisk with talent like Michigan State/Kentucky would be the main attraction for the Champions Classic, but unbelievably, it’s not. The main event is going to belong to Duke and Kansas, who will face off for the first time since the Blue Devils bested the Jayhawks at the 2011 Maui Invitational. There is much history in recent years between both schools from NCAA Tournament showdowns to recruiting wars to oodles of conference championships. But this game has the extra special element of being the national television debut of two of the most sought-after NBA prospects in the last decade: Andrew Wiggins and Jabari Parker. It is these two freshmen studs along with Julius Randle and Arizona’s Aaron Gordon that make up an incoming quartet of NBA greatness in the most loaded NBA lottery since LeBron James went to the Cavaliers in 2003. Unlike Randle, Parker and Wiggins are more natural as small forwards, but both players have a history of rising above the challenge.
Parker is a practicing Mormon straight from Chicago who was so heralded that in May of 2012, before his senior year of high school, he donned the cover of Sports Illustrated. The race was on between Duke, Michigan State, and BYU to get a commitment, but it was Kryzyzewski, fresh off of a gold medal victory at the London Olympics, who pulled the coup and landed the super-smooth Parker. He is the biggest catch Coach K has had at Duke since getting Kyrie Irving back in 2010, but there are plenty of other Duke players in the fray as Jabari-Mania runs wild. Quinn Cook returns after serving for a full year as the starting point guard. Rasheed Sulaimon, who impressed many at the Under-19 World Championships, will be back for his sophomore season. Rodney Hood, the most desired transfer in college basketball after he left Mississippi State in 2012, will also team with Parker in the frontcourt to give Kryzyzewski his most athletic Duke team in a very long time. Now, Parker has the tremendous opportunity to not only shine in his first big college game, but to do it in front of his hometown fans of Chicago at the United Center. And in what almost seems like a date with destiny, Parker will suit up for Duke and duel with Kansas’ next great hope in Andrew Wiggins.
If you are the fan of a really bad NBA team this season, you probably already know who Wiggins is, and if you do not, you are about to find out very soon. He is the son of two former athletes (his dad is former NBA guard Mitchell Wiggins) who was raised in Ontario, Canada, before finishing his high school career Huntington, West Virginia. A dynamic small forward at 6’8”, Wiggins has a refined jump shot, an unstoppable first step, and loads of airspace. He is very much a newer version of LeBron James, and here is the King himself giving Wiggins a figurative bow at his Skills Academy last summer. If you can imagine what LeBron James would have been like if he actually had to play a year in college, then Andrew Wiggins might be your answer. There is suspicion that a handful of NBA teams are already planning to tank their seasons in order to get him. He was originally a 2014 high school recruit, but after impressing scouts and reclassifying for 2013, Wiggins immediately overtook Parker and Randle as the #1 recruit in all the land. What ensued was a mad dash by every school from coast to coast to take Wiggins’ services for his only year of college. Florida State seemed to have a leg up because of his father and mother having gone there, but it did not stop big-timers like Kansas, Kentucky, and North Carolina from throwing down the full court press. Wiggins mulled his decision well past signing day while the world anxiously awaited his decision. Then on May 14th, Wiggins made it official: Rock Chalk Jayhawk.
Wiggins’ arrival at Lawrence felt like a godsend for Kansas fans simply because without him, things may have been troubling. If there was one team that was most bare in the cupboard before their star freshman came to town, it was the Jayhawks, who are winless in the Champions Classic. Out of last year’s team that lost in the Sweet 16, Kansas lost all five of their starters, two of whom were selected in the NBA Draft. They did snag some prized recruits early on in center Joel Embiid and guard Wayne Selden, but Bill Self knew he had to get one of those wonderful toys at the top to make the season worthwhile. When Randle committed to Kentucky in March, Self zoomed in on Wiggins like he had never before for another recruit. Now, with the presumed future of basketball right at his fingertips, Self and Kansas are more stoked than they could have possibly imagined about this season. CBS Sports has already predicted that Wiggins will be the National Player of the Year before playing in a single college game. Sports Illustrated compares him to Kansas greats Wilt Chamberlain and Danny Manning. Anthony Davis met the hype as a freshman, but Harrison Barnes fell way short at North Carolina, so there should be some reservation to go with that fever. Who better to match up one-on-one with Andrew Wiggins as he says, “Hello, world,” than his bud on the recruiting circuit and the next best small forward, Jabari Parker? The game’s winner and loser almost seem like non-factors in favor of the grandeur that will be on display in Chicago. There might be a greater number of NBA scouts on hand than all four teams put together.
It is no shock that on the heels of this year’s unforgettable rendition, the Champions Classic has already been renewed for a new three-year go-around with the same four schools. Calipari, ever the self-promoter, has already helped finalize a second event similar to the Classic that will feature Kentucky, North Carolina, UCLA, and Ohio State for three years of their own. We have seen match-ups that seemed not so epic, like Kansas vs. Kentucky, turn out to be harbingers for college basketball glory and star-studded coaching duels like Mike Krzyzewski versus Tom Izzo. This year, thanks to an onslaught of uber-talented recruits (including the best one of them all) and four schools primed for big years, you won’t have to ask me twice to sit by my television and watch this doubleheader on November 12th. There is a pretty good chance we will see some or even all of these teams dancing at the Final Four in Jerry’s World five months from now. Three more years of this sounds great, but when it comes to this year’s Champions Classic, the future is now.