As Andrew Wiggins faced up on the baseline, looking for room to maneuver, a Kansas fan in the first row of the United Center, just 20 feet away, began shouting.
“Make your money, Wiggins!” he said. “Make your money!”
It was the final minutes on Tuesday night, and for 38 minutes, Wiggins had battled through foul trouble, helping Kansas stay close to No. 4 Duke, but never quite breaking out. Now he cradled the ball on the baseline, Kansas leading by two points, and Wiggins rose up for a jumper.
“I’d seen a lot of people in the lane, waiting for me to drive,” Wiggins would say. “That was off-limits, so I just had confidence in my jumper.”
In the 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, battling for the title of nation’s best freshman. One of the Midwest’s basketball cathedrals. And Kansas sophomore Perry Ellis making magic in the post, finishing with a career-high 24 points.
For the last month, as Wiggins has prepared to enter his one and only season of college basketball, he’s repeated the same line: College should be the best time of your life. So he was going to enjoy this victory.
“It was fun,” Wiggins said. “It was nerve-wracking at first, you can ask Perry, I was sweating in the locker room. I was nervous. But once the ball tipped off, I played with confidence.
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.
All week long, Kansas coach Bill Self would say, Wiggins had pleaded to guard Parker. But Self was concerned about foul trouble, and he never relented — until Wiggins decided to guard Parker on his own during the second half.
“I didn’t put him on Jabari,” Self said. “He just went to guard him. And I think he caught a piece of his shot that possession, and I said, “Well, I guess he was probably right.”
Maybe Wiggins still needs time to mature and grow. Maybe he still needs time to reach his ceiling. But perhaps this game showed why Kansas could be an NCAA title contender in March. Four Kansas freshmen played major minutes on Tuesday night. And then there was Ellis, the sophomore who put on a clinic in the post.
The Jayhawks trailed 42-40 at the half, and then 56-51 in the opening minutes of the second half. But Kansas (2-0) kept fighting, Ellis kept keeping the Jayhawks afloat with offense, and Wiggins kept waiting for the right time to emerge.
“People have made a lot about Andrew’s personality because he’s so mild-mannered… and things look easy to him,” Self said. “But he is competitive.”
Hours earlier, in the same building, 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 that 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-pointers, 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. And the only player that may have made a difference (Wiggins) was on the bench, parked just feet away from Kansas coach Bill Self.
But the final moments belonged to Wiggins and Kansas.
As Wiggins left the floor, he found Parker for a moment. You played good, he said. And that was all.
“Our names on the jersey don’t say Parker and Wiggins, it says Kansas and Duke,” Wiggins said. “At the end of the day, one team is gonna win.”