By Luke Winn
CHICAGO — It was a night about freshmen if you wanted it to be. A good hour before tipoff of the Kentucky-Michigan State opener of the Champions Classic, I came upon an NBA general manager — one whose team is built, more or less, to contend for the 2014 Draft Lottery — occupying a prime courtside seat at the United Center. He was watching the Wildcats’ mundane warmup drills with what really seemed like a twinkle in his eye, no doubt imagining what Julius Randle might look like in his lineup, and comparing that to what Duke’s Jabari Parker might look like, or Kansas’ Andrew Wiggins. I openly wondered if Wiggins, who had played casually in preseason workouts and in his first real college game, would live up to his AAU-ball rep as a big-stage performer when the Jayhawks met the Blue Devils in the nightcap. “Not many bigger stages than this one,” the GM said.
Sixty-seven other NBA evaluators had joined him for what was essentially a pre-Predraft Camp on a Tuesday night in November. Whether any of them left closer to a final opinion on who should be the No. 1 pick is unlikely. Randle went for 27 and 13 in a loss and looked like a beast. Parker went for 27 and 9 in a loss and looked breathtakingly skilled. Wiggins went for 22 and 8 in a win while looking like far from a finished product. The NBA crowd will be debating over those three kids until late June, and can you blame them? It’s a good debate.
Still, for those of us who cover college hoops not as a Predraft Camp but as an actual sport, freshmen turned out not to be the most important part of the Champions Classic. This event was like a four-months-early Final Four, and the most impressive team was full of players who’ve evolved in two, three or four seasons. By knocking off top-ranked Kentucky, 78-74, No. 2 Michigan State established itself as the early national title favorite — and it did so by giving just seven minutes of playing time to a freshman.
The last time we saw the Spartans’ Gary Harris on a big stage, it was March, in the Sweet 16 in Indianapolis. He had been assigned to guard Duke senior Seth Curry, who came off a maze of screens and went off for six threes in a Blue Devils’ win. “He kind of took me to school today,” Harris said then of Curry, who now plays for the Warriors — the Santa Cruz Warriors of the NBDL. Last season, Harris was a 6-foot-4 freshman getting lit up by a diminutive future D-Leaguer. He was the No. 25 player in the Class of 2012 and a five-star prospect, but his role in Michigan State’s rotation was as a kid who mostly just took threes, and did not drive the ball or get mixed up in scrums for rebounds or scrap like mad on defense. The reason: A nagging shoulder injury had turned him into the shell of the attacking star he was in high school and AAU. “You have not seen the Gary Harris I recruited yet,” Spartans coach Tom Izzo warned after that loss to Duke.