Tuesday night brought the best collection of freshmen perhaps ever assembled on one court in the Champions Classic, as Kentucky took on Michigan State and then Duke battled Kansas. And while Kentucky stud Julius Randle and Kansas phenom Andrew Wiggins have gotten arguably the most hype, it was hard to come away from the pair of games not thinking Duke’s Jabari Parker was not only the best freshman, but the best player to grace the court in 80 minutes of basketball.
In short, Parker’s performance can best be summed up by a single word: wow.
Unfortunately for Parker, his individual performance was not enough to overcome Wiggins and the Jayhawks, as Duke fell 94-83. While the talented forward from Chicago scored 27 points and grabbed nine rebounds before fouling out, Bill Self‘s squad clamped down defensively in the second half and got key baskets, including two clutch buckets in the final 90 seconds from Wiggins, to knock off the Blue Devils. Parker showed a wide array of moves and knocked down 4-of-7 threes to get to his 27 points, 19 of which came in the first half. Still, it became clear that the increased defensive attention in the second half threw him off for long stretches.
But when things really mattered most, Wiggins and teammates Perry Ellis and Wayne Selden came up with big basket after big basket, while Parker’s teammates were unable to match a Kansas team that simply looked deeper and more well-rounded on this particular night. One of the key areas where Kansas was able to dominate Duke, particularly whenever Parker was out of the game, was in the low post. Kansas was absolutely dominant on the glass, holding a 39-24 advantage and getting 24 points from Ellis.
Coming into the season, the hype around Duke was that they were deep and had a number of players that could hurt other teams in a variety of ways. Rodney Hood, the much ballyhooed transfer, managed just 11 points on 3-of-8 shooting, and while Rasheed Sulaimon scored 13 points he was quiet for large stretches. One of the bright spots, perhaps surprisingly so, was sophomore Amile Jefferson. While the front line of Kansas dominated through much of the game, Jefferson hit 7-of-8 field goals and finished with 17 points. At the same time, he grabbed only two rebounds. That’s not exactly what you’d like to see out of a starting forward, and it’s a big part of the reason Kansas was able to topple the higher ranked Blue Devils.
Over the course of the game, it became abundantly clear that Duke needs more reliable help for its star freshman. At times, it felt almost like it was Jabari Parker versus Kansas, and that just can’t happen if Duke wants to challenge for a national title. The Blue Devils also need to find some way to cure their interior struggles, because the utter lack of a post presence on offense and their struggles on the glass – not to mention uncharacteristic trouble from the free throw line – could wind up leading to an early exit when March Madness rolls around.