For college hoops fans, is there any better way to kick off the season than having four teams that are among the favorites to reach the Final Four square off in a scintillating doubleheader like what the Champions Classic out in Chicago gave us last night?
There was the smooth, left-handed offensive weaponry of Kentucky freshman Julius Randle in the post, juxtaposed with his blue-collar work on the boards. The dynamic Michigan State back court of Keith Appling and Gary Harris. The raw, quick-twitch, lizard’s tongue speed and explosiveness of Kansas freshman Andrew Wiggins, and the subtle beauty and nuance of his fellow Jayhawk first-year wonder Wayne Selden’s overall floor game on both ends of the court. And the superfluous skills of Duke freshman Jabari Parker, whose game resembles a basketball Einstein’s laboratory creation embedded with Grant Hill’s, Paul Pierce’s, Carmelo’s, Paul Pressey’s and Larry Bird’s basketball smarts and DNA—all of it was more gangster and visually stunning than Tom Hanks as a revenge-seeking Mike Sullivan in The Road to Perdition.
NBA Scouts, of whom over 60 were in attendance, were calling the event “The Convention” because the Spartans, Jayhawks, Blue Devils and Wildcats collectively have about ten guys that are expected to go within the top 15 or 20 picks in the next NBA Draft.
We haven’t seen this much young talent on one stage since the Cirque du Soleil, The Black Orchid in Detroit back in the ’90s, or when LL Cool J surrounded himself with some of Hip Hop’s best rookie talent on 1995’s “I Shot Ya” remix .
So, what can we take away from last night’s Kansas and Michigan State’s victories? Well, it’s only one week into the season, so not much, other than knowing that we watched some of the college game’s best teams before they’ve had a chance to coalesce and blossom into the Soul Sonic Forces they should be by the time March Madness rolls around.
When watching these teams in the days ahead, here are some things to look out for and appreciate.
MICHIGAN STATE – Sophomore shooting guard Gary Harris, who some say was Namond— Weebay’s son on The Wire, in a past incarnation—is one of the best and most complete shooting guards that you will see on the college level.
He’s an elite defender, rebounder and scorer and excels in transition as well as within the confines of a structured half-court offense. Point guard Keith Appling played like Isiah Thomas last night with his 22 points, 8 rebounds, 8 assists and 4 steals.
What we have here ladies and germs is the best back court in America. Kentucky’s duo of the Harrison twins walked in with all the hype last night, but Appling and Harris had the brothers doing the Zab Judah Chicken Dance/ Harlem Shake with the blows they were delivering.
With depth and experience, and the front court stealth and skills of big men Adreian Payne and Brandon Dawson, and a strong bench headlined by Denzel Valentine, this crew has pro talent all over the floor, excellent shooting, transitional superiority, and the rebounding and defensive acumen that every Tom Izzo coached team is known for.
When they asserted themselves offensively and defensively at different junctures of the game, they looked smoother than Boardwalk Empire’s Chalky White on a Easter Sunday! To me, they were the best overall team at “The Convention.”
KENTUCKY – Yeah, Andrew Wiggins is an athletic freak, but if I’m a team like the 76’ers, I’m not so sure I wouldn’t take Julius Randle with the #1 overall pick next year. He has that big boy, ballerina feet down low with some Zach Randolph-esque touch. A bully on the boards, his 13 rebounds last night against what is historically one of the better rebounding teams in the country— not to mention the way he Incognito’d his way (I just created some new verbiage right’chere) to 27 points against the Spartans—had old-timer’s making that “I just got caught by some silent-but-deadly mustard-gas in a crowded elevator” face.
Once he learns to protect the ball better and initiate his move faster, I will be calling him “The Soprano’s Finale”, because there will be no sufficient answer that any team can provide for him. Be patient with this Kentucky team and allow them some time to grow. You will not be disappointed.
The Harrison Twins, though looking as socially awkward as Arnold Horshack last night, should be a force to be reckoned with as the season hits its stride.
James Young can score like Tiger Woods at a Denny’s waitress convention, Willie Cauley-Stein is a shot-altering defensive presence, Alex Poythress brings a level of athleticism off the bench that some teams don’t have in their starting lineup, Marcus Lee is a prodigious shot blocker and Brooklyn’s Dakari Johnson is a mammoth mountain of strength and muscle.
They will bump their heads from time to time, but when March rolls around, expect to be intrigued like Rick James by their combination of youth and potential.
KANSAS – Please give Andrew Wiggins, the guy that many people are calling the best prospect the college game has seen since Kevin Durant, some time to marinate. The hype on him is more of a projection. His hops are LeBronesque and Iversonificent. He’s a very good defender, can shoot, is a gazelle in the open floor and his athleticism is as elite as one can get.
For those who were disappointed in his performance last night prior to him making his presence felt in clutch time, you have to understand that, despite the accolades, he’s still raw. But consider that he hasn’t even scratched the surface, and he still put up 22 points and 8 rebounds against a very good Duke team, while sitting out about 30% of the game, IN ONLY HIS SECOND COLLEGE CONTEST!
While Wiggins gets all the hype, I think their best freshman is Boston’s Wayne Selden, a former young high school teammate of Nerlens Noel, whose embarrassment of offensive skills reminds me of a young Jimmy Jackson back at Ohio State.
Not only is he strong with speed and some bounce, he plays with effort on every possession and is relentless and focused (like Julia Roberts deranged husband in the movie Sleeping With The Enemy) over every inch of the court’s 94 feet. His passing, vision, ball-handling, rebounding and work both on and off the ball will all be overshadowed by Wiggins’ dunks, though not by NBA scouts. And he is a runaway freight train on the fast break.
Sophomore forward Perry Ellis may not be the athletic marvel that his young teammates are, but he is a crafty and dependable scorer who is poised for an All-American-type season. In last year’s NCAA Tournament, he gently informed us that he could play. Last night , his 24 points and 9 rebounds loudly announced his arrival to a new level, like Reggie Hammond in 48 Hours.
Their freshman class is more loaded than Carlos Slim. It won’t be long before young point guard Frank Mason, who was not a coveted high school recruit takes over Naadir Thorpe’s starting job. Conner Frankamp and Brannen Greene are dependable deep-range marksmen, and 7-Footer Joel Embiid, who has only been playing ball for three years, is dripping with the type of untapped potential that many said Hakeem Olajuwon walked on to the basketball courts with. He may not turn out to be that good, but even if he only approaches Olden Polynice type levels in the future, his interior presence will allow him to cash some pro checks for a long time.
DUKE – Prior to this season’s tip-off, I told anyone that would listen that while the potential of Wiggins was through the roof, the best overall player, not just freshman, but PLAYER, in the college game would be Blue Devils freshman Jabari Parker.
He has a great feel for the game and can play the 2, 3 and 4 while also operating as a point-forward. If you were paying attention last night, he was also versatile enough to guard Kansas’ behemoth 7-foot freshman Joel Embiid in the paint as well.
He connected from deep and scored in the lane with equal aplomb. He might not have a sculpted body like LeBron, but he is deceptively quick and agile with fantastic body control. Slick with the dribble, he can either get his shot off or create space to drive and probe.
Jabari’s a thinker on the court, and demonstrates patience, craftiness and intelligence. And he’s a scoring threat from anywhere. If he stays at Duke for more than a year, it’s only because he wants to, considering had he been eligible to come out in this year’s NBA draft, he would have easily been the #1 overall pick ahead of UNLV’s Anthony Bennett.
How good is Jabari? If you saw last night’s 27 point, 9 rebound and 2 steal masterpiece, you already know: he should be in the company of Carmelo Anthony, Kevin Durant and Wayman Tisdale as one of the best freshman combination forwards the college game has ever seen once his first-year resume is complete.
Duke will be a lot of fun to watch this year. Jabari will do a lot of everything. Rodney Hood is a velvety smooth and crafty lefty scorer.
Amile Jefferson will cover plenty of ground with his spring and length, Rasheed Sulaimon was an impact player last year as a freshman who can score in a variety of ways, Tyler Thornton is a glue-guy and Quinn Cook is an exciting point guard with some boogie who can make you jump out of your seat with his scoring and passing arsenal.
I expect this team to be extremely dangerous if redshirt senior Andre Dawkins, who didn’t get in the game last night, returns to the form he showed as a key sub on the 2010 National Championship team and career 40% sniper from deep.
FINAL ANALYSIS – Overall, it was great to watch some college hoops in early November that had the feel of a Final Four. And every team, in one way, shape or form, looked unique and special. And if this is how we’re gonna get the season started, I can’t wait to see how it finishes. With all of the freshman talent, exemplified by Kansas and Kentucky, and the teams returning talented vets like Michigan State, or teams with a mixture of both like Duke, this year should be one of the rest in recent memory.