On Tuesday, Duke and Kansas will square off in the Champions Classic in Chicago. It's a battle between two of the four winningest schools in college basketball history. A war waged between two teams opening the season ranked in the top five in the nation. A showdown with RPI and SOS benefits to consider in March—especially for whichever one picks up the crucial neutral-court win over a top-ranked nonconference opponent.
All that mumbo jumbo will take a back seat to the hype over the head-to-head meeting between Andrew Wiggins and Jabari Parker.
Unless one scores 40 and the other gets shut out, the second game in each phenom's collegiate career will ultimately have minimal effect on NBA draft stock or standing for the USBWA National Freshman of the Year award. However, it will be the most anticipated and oft-discussed game of the opening month of the 2013-14 NCAA men's basketball season.
People who get paid a lot of money to scout prospects have pretty much unanimously decided that Wiggins is better suited for the NBA and most likely to be drafted with the first overall pick on June 26, 2014. As such, I won't be wasting your time by debating whether Parker will be drafted higher or have the better long-term career.
However, there's a strong case to be made that Parker will have a better freshman season than Wiggins.
Wiggins is a freak of nature. Six-foot-eight "small" forwards with the speed of a gazelle, the footwork of a Riverdancer and the hands of Jerry Rice don't exactly grow on trees. He's the ever-sought, rarely found total package.
Having said that, small forwards haven't ever been a part of Bill Self's system. Only once in the past decade (Julian Wright in 2006-07) has a small forward finished a year as one of the top three scorers at Kansas. The Jayhawks have become something of a factory for hybrid guards, power forwards and shot-blockers.
Perry Ellis and Jamari Traylor are each listed as 6'8" small forwards and combined to score just 7.9 points per game during their freshman campaigns last season.
That isn't to say that Self won't figure out how to properly utilize Wiggins, but there's at least reason to expect something of a learning curve.
Parker, on the other hand, might as well have been built to order for Mike Krzyzewski. Tall forwards who can play on the wing are Duke's bread and butter. From Grant Hill to Shane Battier to Luol Deng to Kyle Singler and even to Ryan Kelly, the team has always been at its best with a big man who can both shoot the three and defend the wing.
To be fair, perimeter defense is one of the few complaints on Parker's scouting report, but you simply don't spend a summer at Camp Krzyzewski without emerging as a more capable piece of his defensive puzzle.
Supporting cast is another factor that figures to work in Parker's favor.
Don't get me wrong: Kansas has a ton of talent. Only Kentucky has a higher ranked incoming class of freshmen, per ESPN.com.
Joel Embiid is the top-ranked freshman center and could very well evolve into the best big man in the country this season. Conner Frankamp and Brannen Greene figure to make big contributions (assuming they aren't redshirted) after combining to average 58 points per game in their senior years of high school. Wayne Selden would have been the most anticipated incoming small forward in Kansas history if not for Wiggins.
But where's the leadership?
Kansas lost all five of its top scorers from last season. Power forward Tarik Black is transferring from Memphis and becomes the highest-scoring "returning" player. And if there's anything at all to complain about when it comes to Wiggins, it's a lack of leadership and killer instinct.
Kentucky won it all in 2012 while being led almost entirely by freshmen. Kentucky failed to make the NCAA tournament in 2013 while being led almost entirely by freshmen. Only time will tell how well the team chemistry will pan out.
Meanwhile, Parker joins super sophomore Rasheed Sulaimon and a cast of upperclassmen made up primarily of Quinn Cook, Tyler Thornton, Josh Hairston and Andre Dawkins.
With the possible exception of Sulaimon, if you put those guys in games of one-on-one against the aforementioned members of Kansas' incoming class, they would probably each get destroyed. However, there's something to be said for players who have an established role in the team's system.
The possibility of a clash of styles and egos in regard to ball distribution is far less likely to rear its ugly head in Parker's situation.
One final X-factor that could work in Parker's favor is the strength of schedule.
Even with the return of Marcus Smart to Oklahoma State, it figures to be a very down year for the Big 12. Kansas State lost four of its top seven scorers from last season and didn't add any 4- or 5-star recruits. Iowa State added a pair of 4-star guards, but it's a painfully small team—6'9" Percy Gibson is the tallest player on the team, and he has struggled to get playing time over the past two seasons. Even 2012-13's surprise sensation, Oklahoma, should be experiencing quite the regression after losing its top three players from last season.
Unless Baylor and/or Texas can bounce back after a tough year, the Big 12 will be a two-horse race from start to finish.
However, prior to that conference schedule—during the portion of the season in which freshman-laden teams are most likely to experience a learning curve—Kansas faces quite possibly the most difficult gauntlet in the country.
|Schedule for Kansas||Schedule for Duke|
|vs. Louisiana-Monroe||vs. Davidson|
|vs. Duke||vs. Kansas|
|vs. Iona||vs. Florida Atlantic|
|vs. Towson||vs. UNC-Asheville (NIT Opener)|
|@ Wake Forest (Battle 4 Atlantis Opener)||vs. Vermont|
|@ Colorado||vs. Michigan|
|@ Florida||vs. Gardner-Webb|
|@ New Mexico||@ UCLA|
|vs. Georgetown||vs. Eastern Michigan|
|vs. Toledo||@ Elon|
|vs. San Diego State|
In addition to the early game against Duke, Kansas will take part in the Battle 4 Atlantis—facing Wake Forest in the first round and likely drawing Villanova and Iowa in the latter rounds. Upon their return to the mainland, the Jayhawks play three straight games away from home against Colorado, Florida and New Mexico. Two of their final three nonconference games come against Georgetown and San Diego State.
Ain't no rest for the Jayhawks. Now, if Wiggins comes out and immediately excels against those opponents, he should be able to coast through a lackluster Big 12 schedule to become the top freshman in the country. But there's at least reason to question whether that could happen.
Parker's collegiate career gets off to a much more forgiving start. Unless they wind up facing Arizona in the finals of the NIT Season Tip-Off tournament, the fourth-most difficult nonconference game on the Blue Devils' schedule is either the home opener against Davidson or a home game against Vermont. Either way, it's a far cry from Kansas' fourth-most difficult one.
Maybe I'm completely wrong and Wiggins will tear through his freshman season like a knife through hot butter, leaving all other freshmen in the dust. Part of me hopes that happens, as I can't be the only one who often wonders what it would have been like to watch LeBron James play one year for Ohio State.
On the other hand, it's possible I'm even underselling how high Parker's ceiling might be. He could single-handedly carry Duke to the Final Four and erase any lingering debates over which super frosh made more out of his one year in college.
Based on his coach's system, more opportunities for points and a softer schedule, Parker has a slightly better chance at earning the title of National Freshman of the Year.
Regardless of who finishes on top, one thing is for sure: Parker vs. Wiggins is going to be a fun battle to watch from day one.
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