What does it mean when all of a sudden, college hoops is blessed with not one, not two, but three bonafide superstars and a cavalcade of intriguing and impressive players?
What does it mean when despite growing NCAA controversy about paying players, lawsuits from every which way, and the slowest basketball pace in 50 years, we may be looking at a college season for the ages?
It might mean that I have to write about college basketball in the second week of November, as crazy as that sounds.
This past Tuesday at the United Center in Chicago, the inaugural Champion’s Classic lived up to every expectation. Featuring four of the top five teams in America as well as an obscene number of potential NBA players, viewers were treated to two well-contested and entertaining games. There was a problem with length and the number of fouls, but I doubt many people besides Kentucky or Duke fans left the arena disappointed.
Coming into the Classic, the pressure was squarely on a small group of freshmen to deliver their first big moments in college basketball. Andrew Wiggins, Jabari Parker, and Julius Randle are all going to be Top 10 draft picks, maybe even the first three guys off the board – and they all lived up to the hype. Randle put up 27 points and 13 rebounds, his third straight 20-and-10 to open up the season. He absolutely overpowered guys at the rim, and did it with Zach Randolph-like swagger. Parker dominated the first half of the Duke-Kansas game, looking like a baby Melo with his jumper. Then he pulled out this masterpiece of an alley-oop:
Wiggins struggled at the beginning of his game due to foul trouble, but in the second half he scored 16 points, showing off a step-back jumper and explosive speed. He may be the rawest of the three, but it’s not hard to argue that he has the most potential. I was very disappointed that he shaved his budding ‘fro though.
Come March, these two games won’t mean much. Kentucky’s freshmen will have come together like in 2012 (or not, like last year). Michigan State will ride the experience/rebounding train deep into the tournament. Kansas and Duke have more questions, but both should be there at the end of the season if their defense picks up.
So what does it really all mean? It means that for the first time since I can remember, the college basketball regular season is going to break through the “casual-fan barrier”. March Madness is an unstoppable force, that is obvious. But this season is going to be more than that. I know personally I will be tuning into Kansas, Duke, and Kentucky games whenever I get the chance, because I haven’t seen college hoops played with such skill and exuberance as I did watching the Champion’s Classic. It felt like two great NBA games, only without the fan indifference and corporate sponsorship.
These aren’t even the only teams worth watching. There’s the defending champs Louisville with All-American Russ Smith; there’s Oklahoma State and super sophomore Marcus Smart. There’s a West Coast resurgence at UCLA and Oregon, and the mid-majors like VCU and Creighton are starting to become major-majors. And of course, the true beauty of college basketball is that you can never really predict anything. The Butler/George Mason/Wichita State is out there, lurking, waiting to take down a big name at a big time. 351 teams, all fighting for a spot at the Dance, means that every day there’s a big game for somebody – how many sports can make that claim?
Jabari, Julius, and Andrew opened the door at the Champion’s Classic. And now it’s time for the nation to take a look inside.
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What does it mean for the NBA?
Well for starters, it might mean the best draft in at least 11 years. Not since the LeBron/Melo/Wade/Bosh group of 2003 has there been a draft with this kind of star potential. It’s not crazy to think that more than five teams could select franchise-altering players this June.
With all this talent coming in, it could cause some problems for emerging NBA players. You see this phenomenon with NFL quarterbacks all the time – if the guy isn’t working out after a year or two, you just get another one in the draft. The issue is that NBA players aren’t like quarterbacks at all in that sense. An NBA athlete in his first couple of years usually is stuck in a lesser role, where he has to learn the nuances and challenges of the pro game. He is usually way more potential at the beginning than actual, victory-producing skill.
Look at a couple of current NBA stars, Paul George and Andre Iguodala. George might just be an MVP candidate this year, but as the 10th pick in the 2010 draft, he wasn’t instantly a star. Far from it actually – his rookie season he averaged just 8 points per game. It wasn’t until his third year that George blossomed into a great player, and now in his fourth year a superstar.
Iguodala has had an even longer road to NBA success. Drafted all the way back in 2004, Iggy has had to shed numerous negative stereotypes about his game – can’t shoot, can’t pass, isn’t a team player – to get to his current status as a great glue guy and defensive stopper. Now he’s making ridiculous behind-the-back passes at Golden State.
It goes to show you that not everyone is a star right away. So what’s the point? All of these rookies coming in might cause a few second or third-year players to fall by the wayside. Guys like Kemba Walker and Tristan Thompson might not have the opportunity to grow if the Next Big Thing comes along, and that’s a sad development amidst all this hype.
The 2014 NBA draft will bring a new crop of talent into the Association. But it might keep a diamond-in-the-rough success story buried for good.