CHICAGO — As Andrew Wiggins faced up on the baseline, looking for room to maneuver, a Kansas fan in the first row, just 20 feet away from Wiggins, began shouting.
“Make your money, Wiggins! Make your money.”
For nearly 38 minutes Wiggins battled through foul trouble, helping Kansas stay with No. 4 Duke, but never quite breaking out. Now he cradled the ball on the baseline, Kansas leading by two points in the final minutes, and Wiggins rose up for a jumper.
In following moments, Wiggins would finish a fast-break dunk on the next possession. And Kansas would pull off a 94-83 victory on Tuesday night in the long-awaited Champions Classic at the United Center in Chicago.
For a sport that usually reserves classic status for the month of March, this game had every thing you could ever want. Wiggins and Duke freshman star Jabari Parker. One of the Midwest’s basketball cathedrals. And Kansas sophomore Perry Ellis finishing with a career-high 24 points. In the final minutes, with a momentary pause in action, the Kansas cheering section came to its feet, and a brief “Let’s Go Jayhawks” chant echoed across the United Center.
Wiggins finished with 22 points and 10 rebounds, including 16 points as Kansas erased a five-point deficit in the second half. Parker, playing in his own hometown, finished with a game-high 27 points.
Maybe Wiggins still needs time to mature and grow. Maybe he still needs time to reach his ceiling. But this game showed why Kansas could be an NCAA title contender in March. Four Kansas freshman played major minutes on Tuesday night. And then there was Ellis, the sophomore who put on a clinic in the post.
KU trailed 60-57 with 12:38 left. Wiggins had just picked up his third foul. Parker converted two free throws. And Duke, which led by as many as five in the second half, had momentarily pushed Kansas away again. But Kansas freshman Joel Embiid would finish a two-handed dunk on the next possession, collecting a pass from Wayne Selden. And Wiggins got loose for a fast-break dunk on the other end. And Kansas led 61-60.
It was that close until the final minute.
Wiggins, plagued by foul trouble for most of the night, picked up his fourth foul with 7:20 left. He went to the bench before coming back with just more than five minutes left.
Two hours earlier, a No. 1-ranked Kentucky team with six McDonald’s All-Americans had been humbled by No. 2 Michigan State, an older, stronger and more experienced team. But in the nightcap, in front of a United Center crowd that had the star-power of a Bulls playoff game, it was underclassmen who would own the day.
The opening 20 minutes belonged to Parker, a spectacle of offensive ability. While Wiggins was limited to just 11 minutes, sitting after picking up his second foul, Parker went on a rampage, drilling four three-pointer, hitting leaners in the lane, and generally making life miserable for whatever Kansas player was designated to guard him.
For possessions, it was Ellis. At other times, Jamari Traylor had to pick up the slack. Parker, a 6-foot-8 forward with the ability to put it on the floor and hit step-back jumpers, was a matchup nightmare. Even when Kansas fouled Parker on a three-point attempt early in the half, he still made the shot and converted the four-point play. And the only player that may have made a difference (Wiggins) was on the bench, parked just feet away from Kansas coach Bill Self.
In the final minutes of the half, Parker would drill back-to-back three-pointers. The second three-pointer — his fourth of the half — pushed the Duke lead to 40-38 with 2:10 left. And in some ways, this was a victory for Kansas.
They had survived, at least for 10 minutes, without Wiggins. Ellis worked his magic on the block. Freshman Brannen Greene entered the game and quickly hit two jumpers, including a three-pointer, and Kansas momentarily took a 32-26 lead with 6:22 left in the first half.
This is what was expected when Kansas and Duke took the floor at the United Center a little past 9 p.m. It was all set up, perhaps the two best freshmen in the country, maybe the two best freshmen in years, going head to head in Parker’s backyard.
Before his matchup with Parker, Wiggins had shaved his growing, unkempt thatch of hair. He looked much more like an 18-year-old, young and baby-faced. But after finishing a couple of buckets in traffic, Wiggins was forced to sit most of the first half in foul trouble.
Parker, meanwhile, had been the last Duke player to join the Blue Devils’ huddle in the moments before the game. They waited in a tunnel, just off the United Center floor, reciting a quick choreographed rap. Finally, Parker jogged down a huddle and joined his teammates.
It didn’t take him long to warm up. It would take Wiggins nearly 38 minutes to find his zone. But it was Wiggins and Kansas who left with the win.
Signing signals — Decision day is looming for three of Kansas’ top recruiting targets.Chicago native Jahlil Okafor, the nation’s No. 1 overall senior recruit, will unveil his college decision at 3 p.m. on Friday. In the same hour on Friday, Minnesota point guard Tyus Jones, Rivals’ No. 5 overall recruit, and Chicago forward Cliff Alexander (No. 4) are also slated announce their college choices at their respective high schools. Okafor, who has said he’d like to attend the same college as Jones, was expected to be in attendance at the United Center on Tuesday.
Okafor, a 6-foot-10 senior center from Whitney Young High School, is reportedly still considering Kansas, Duke and Baylor. Okafor visited Kansas in late October, spending the weekend in Lawrence with Jones, a Minnesota point guard who is also still considering Kansas and Duke.
Alexander, a 6-foot-8 power forward, has a final list of schools that includes Illinois, DePaul, Memphis and Kansas. He was in Lawrence this past weekend watching his girlfriend play for the KU women’s team.
Kansas already has one commitment in its 2014 class. Small forward Kelly Oubre, rated as Rivals’ No. 12 overall recruit, chose Kansas over Kentucky in October after attending Late Night in The Phog.