CHICAGO — Jabari Parker seemed distracted as he wandered the nearly empty United Center hallway to the team bus after Duke’s 94-83 loss to Kansas in the second game of Tuesday night’s State Farm Champions Classic.
You could hardly blame Parker for seeming out of it. The 6-foot-9 freshman phenom created a national buzz on Tuesday night by scoring 27 points while hauling down nine rebounds in the first major game of his college career — and second college game overall — and it came in his hometown of Chicago against No. 5 Kansas and the projected No. 1 pick in the 2014 NBA Draft, Andrew Wiggins.
Wiggins vs. Parker has been a hot topic of discussion since the two were elite high school prospects and Tuesday gave the duo a chance for a clash on a national stage.
While Wiggins spent much of the first half in foul trouble, Parker started out hot, knocking down 6-of-10 field goals and 4-of-5 three-pointers in the first half on his way to 19 points by the break. But in the second half, Parker was clearly a bit tired and the Jayhawks threw multiple bodies at him to try to stop him, including Wiggins for a few possessions.
Parker finished 9-for-18 from the field and 4-for-7 from three-point range in 33 minutes before fouling out with 1:16 left to play. Wiggins tallied 22 points and eight rebounds in 25 minutes but also earned the victory for his team.
The talk of Wiggins vs. Parker — and their future status as likely top NBA draft picks — dominated the headlines before, during and after a game that still featured two top-five teams and numerous other McDonald’s All-Americans, but Wiggins and Parker belong to college basketball for at least the next few months and the only thing that really mattered to them was Kansas beating Duke in a hard-fought, early-season game.
“Our names on our jerseys don’t say ‘Parker’ and ‘Wiggins’ it says ‘Kansas’ and ‘Duke,'” Wiggins said after the game. “At the end of the day, one team is going to win, not one player.”
A four-time Illinois Class 4A state champion at Simeon Career Academy on the Southside of Chicago, Parker isn’t accustomed to losing and clearly felt the emotion of the big night in his hometown. As the Blue Devils waited to take the United Center floor before the game, Parker stood in the tunnel with his teammates as Magic Johnson walked by and gave Duke some words of encouragement.
Clearly, this wasn’t your typical November college hoops battle.
“I think it’s remarkable that a kid that’s 18 can come in here during his second game…. in his hometown and playing against Kansas and he was sensational,” Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski said. “Imagine the emotion that you use? He wasn’t just worn out towards the end because of the way the game was played, I think he was emotioned out. He was terrific and that’s how you grow. I thought he handled everything well.”
As an undersized team facing Kansas’ length and athleticism on the interior, Duke also counted on Parker to defend in the post — something Jabari is getting used to at the college level — and he also paced the Blue Devils with nine rebounds.
“(Jabari) did a good job; they’re tough in the post. That’s what they’ve done the entire time that Bill has been there, is really strong low-post play,” Krzyzewski said of Parker’s post defense. “I think Jabari wore them down a little bit too. It’s how you punch; it’s how you counter. I thought Jabari did a great job.”
Both teams downplayed the individual matchup of Wiggins and Parker in favor of Duke versus Kansas, but with an estimated 70-plus NBA people in attendance at the United Center and the buzz of basketball fans across the country fixated on the matchup of the freshman phenoms, its hard not to focus on Wiggins vs. Parker as the night’s major storyline.
As Wiggins raced down the open floor for a dunk that put the Jayhawks ahead 87-81 with 1:16 left, Parker was the one to foul him on the play giving chase and was disqualified from the game with his fifth foul.
The play symbolized what America learned after Tuesday’s Champions Classic: Wiggins is still a half-step ahead of Parker for now, but the battle is much closer than many people had anticipated.
The sold-out United Center’s frenzied atmosphere made the Champions Classic feel a bit like March, but there are still four more months until we find out any real answers to the “Wiggins vs. Parker” debate.
If Tuesday night’s matchup was any indication, college basketball fans are going to have a lot of fun figuring out the answer.