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Chicago fans are starving for good college basketball—and they got it

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Updated: November 13, 2013 11:08PM

A phenomenon occurred Tuesday at the United Center.

And part of it was former Simeon star Jabari Parker, who announced his arrival back in Chicago as a Duke freshman by scoring 27 points to go with nine rebounds, two blocked shots and a steal in a 93-84 loss to Kansas.

When he had two twisting layups followed quickly by two nothing-but-net three-pointers in the first half, the formal statement was delivered.

It’s astounding to think that the already-famous, hugely trumpeted kid is only 18. Also astounding is that equally famous and talented Kansas freshman Andrew Wiggins is also 18, born three weeks before Parker in, of all places, Canada.

These two barely-in-college guys did stuff you see only in the NBA. Dunks, three-pointers, step-back jumpers — all there. Indeed, the notoriously humble Parker already has an
un-humble ‘‘Who, me?’’ pro look after fouls. Plus, he wears No. 1, never for the shrinking violet. One more thing: As good as he is, he got posterized by Wiggins on a breakaway dunk with less than 90 seconds left. And the foul. It happens to the best.

But the amazing thing was this: Four great college basketball teams played a doubleheader in front of a crazed, sellout crowd of 21,000, and the school closest to Chicago was Michigan State — 230 miles away in East Lansing, Mich.

You think Chicago can’t support college hoops mania?

The next thought is: How would we know? From Northwestern to Loyola to DePaul, Chicago has been a college hoops desert for a long time now.

But this mini-tournament was more than only two games early in the season. This was something that might be better than the Final Four matchups we’ll get next spring.

Here we had No. 1 Kentucky against No. 2 Michigan State (a dandy the Spartans won 78-74) and
No. 4 Duke against No. 5 Kansas. Not only were these four of the top five teams in the country, but they had eight of the top freshmen from the 2013 recruiting class and four of the biggest coaching names in the biz: John Calipari, Tom Izzo, Mike Krzyzewski and Bill Self.

But this was a treat unlike any we’ve seen this early in a season. There were NBA scouts, general managers and executives everywhere, including Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau and GM Gar Forman. As one exec from out of town said — and I’m not making this up, only protecting him from getting his hand slapped: ‘‘There are 31 NBA teams here, plus Kentucky.’’

Yep, Kentucky is the new model for college hoops: Bring in the superstar kids, let ’em play for a season, then release them to the pros. Indeed, four of the Wildcats’ starters were freshmen: power forward Julius Randle, small forward James Young and identical-twin guards Aaron and Andrew Harrison. The doddering old man of the group, 7-foot center Willie Cauley-Stein, turned 20 three months ago.

So even if Kentucky had won, nobody could have swigged a legal, celebratory glass of champagne — not like that was going to happen. Randle, a 6-9, 250-pounder, might play like a man — 27 points and 13 rebounds — but he and the other guys basically have to introduce themselves to each other like the new kids in school they are.

‘‘This kind of tournament is great for college basketball,’’ said Calipari, who added it wasn’t so great for his young kids, who need to realize this is the NCAA, not AAU.

About Randle, Calipari said: ‘‘Julius had eight turnovers for one reason: He held the ball.’’

Not only did Kentucky’s kids not run an efficient offense, but they went
20-for-36 from the free-throw line.

‘‘You miss 16 free throws, you can’t win the game,’’ Calipari said.

There was one good thing that happened, he said.

‘‘We had guys crying in [the locker room], and that’s a good thing,’’ Calipari said.

Why? Because the loss should hurt, high school cred be damned.

Michigan State, on the other hand, started two sophomores, a junior and two seniors. Senior guard Keith Appling had a game-high 22 points, eight rebounds, eight assists and four steals. The NBA star-to-be is likely sophomore guard Gary Harris (20 points, three steals), who could have turned pro after last season but instead implored then-junior forward Adreian Payne not to leave school early because the Spartans could have something special going this year.

Then there was the Parker-Wiggins matchup, which was sort of like an NBA lottery-pick tryout. Those two might go first and second in the draft
next spring.

Flip Saunders, the president of basketball operations for the Minnesota Timberwolves, said the top three picks — Parker, Wiggins and Randle — were on the floor at the United Center.

‘‘This is something,’’ Saunders said.

And Chicago ate it up.

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