CHICAGO -- In the leadup to Tuesday's made-for-TV scrapbook moments, Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski described the 2013 Champions Classic as the Final Four in November. He might have undersold the doubleheader.
The atmosphere and individual performances at the United Center lived up to that billing. While Duke and Kentucky left with losses to top-five opponents, college basketball was the big winner.
The third year of the marquee event brought in current and past NBA players, and perked the antennae for the national TV debuts of All-American-caliber freshmen, as if the allure of traditional powerhouses like Coach K's Blue Devils, Kansas, Kentucky and Michigan State wouldn't be enough.
"I think it's going to be an unbelievable year for college basketball," Kansas coach Bill Self said. "There's the potential for more great teams than what we've had in recent memory."
Buzz for Tuesday's doubleheader bubbled to new extremes. The secondary ticket market was producing prices more than double last year's rate of $175 for two games in Atlanta involving the same four programs.
NFL and NBA players found their way to the game, as if a Saturday night prize fight. Mr. Michigan State Magic Johnson flew in from Los Angeles, spoke at the pregame meal and brought other Spartans alums along with him.
"When Magic Johnson comes back and flies in for the game it matters," Spartans coach Tom Izzo said. "When Morris Peterson and (Jason) Richardson are here, it matters. A lot of guys came back for this. We needed a program win and that was one."
And it was a rousing victory for college basketball, appointment television in the middle of NFL season and the BCS hunt in college football.
What brought Detroit Lions defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh to a courtside seat, beckoned NBA general managers from all corners of the map and nailed a gold star on the Nielsen scoreboard (2.6 overnight was highest ever for ESPN in November for college hoops)?
Hype, Self said, is often borne of anticipation of the unknown. The basketball-loving world bought in to the ESPN pitch of catching the top freshmen in America, and dubbed the uncanny collection of Duke's Jabari Parker, Kansas' Andrew Wiggins and Julius Randle of Kentucky as "basically the green room of the NBA draft."
The Freshman Class is no longer a subplot to the 2013-14 season, it's a primary plot line. All three could be top-five draft picks next June, the type of cachet that draws a crowd of 80-plus NBA evaluators and keeps flocks of fringe fans tuned in to see what the 18-year-olds can do next.
As a collective group -- Kentucky started four freshmen, and former Michigan 'Fab Five' point guard Jalen Rose told The Sports Xchange that all of them definitely have an NBA future -- they displayed raw talent and more than lived up to the billing. Parker's performance foretells greatness, even if he wanted to downplay his effort in defeat.
Parker carried Duke for extended stretches, but might have emptied his tank too soon, fouling out trying to block a Wiggins dunk with 90 seconds left in Kansas' 94-83 victory. Parker poured in 27 points and led the Blue Devils in rebounds, defending three positions during the course of his 33 minutes.
"Two games in, he's sensational," Krzyzewski said of comparing Parker to great players in program history. Krzyzewski wryly noted his last great player, Kyrie Irving, only had "an eight-game career."
"He's good," Self said of Parker. "He was the best player in the game for a big stretch."
Rose helped Michigan to the 1992 national championship game on a roster largely made up of underclassmen, including five prominent freshmen dubbed The Fab Five. Kentucky's recruiting class, ripe with four freshmen ranked in the top 15 overall by 247 Sports, is being dubbed the best since that Rose-Chris Webber-Juwan Howard-Ray Jackson-Jimmy King crew.
Taking Kentucky's rocky first 30 minutes Tuesday as Exhibit A, the Champions Classic didn't answer every riddle this season has to offer. Kentucky coach John Calipari willingly talked about leading Randle and Company to a 40-0 season. So much for that.
It would be ludicrous to dismiss the Wildcats based on a four-point 78-74 loss to the new No. 1 team in the nation, a more experienced, big-game tested Michigan State Spartans club built for this type of showcase.
"This is great for college basketball," Calipari said. "It's just tough for a really young team."
Calipari nonchalantly raised the fair point that he has almost four months to get his team figured out. The stage won't be too big for long. Randle poured in 23 of his 27 points in the second half. The last time he was in a spotlight even remotely comparable to the United Center with 20,000 was the 5A Texas State title game. All Randle did was put up 35 and 20. Randle and Kentucky will be there in March.
Duke, Kansas and Michigan State could be, too. In reality, the Champions Classic was better than any Final Four would hope -- when was the last time the national semifinals bracket included four top-five ranked teams?
Louisville, defending national champions, still holds bragging rights, and a few things are working in the favor of the Cardinals -- a new, lighter conference schedule and the return of top scorer Russ Smith, among others.
It's not a reach to project Michigan as the best team in the Big Ten.
The freshmen will grow. The buzz will grow with them. We can only hope the show in Arlington, Texas, at the Final Four next spring lives up to Tuesday's opening acts.
"It's one week into our season, less than one week, and people are too giddy about guys because of the unknown," Self said. "When guys are seen and studied and figured out, there's going to be a little bit of a roller-coaster for all these young kids. It's a great freshman class, without question. We're fortunate to have one that's talked about a lot."
And college hoops can be grateful everyone is talking in November.
LeBron James, the No. 1 overall pick in 2008, never played a second of college basketball but judging by his social media plug-ins, he's already tracking the draft class of 2014.
"GM's wish the draft was tomorrow," James wrote during the second half of the Duke-Kansas see-saw affair.
Former Minnesota Timberwolves forward Wally Szczerbiak wrote "Jabari Parker is a #flamethrower, on fire."
Comparisons for all three -- Randle, Wiggins and Parker -- poured in, complete with GIFs of Grant Hill and Parker finishing alley-oop dunks in similar fashion, Carmelo Anthony's smooth stroke next to Parker's and Randle's physique side-by-side with a shot of 19-year-old Webber. Wiggins was likened to a more explosive Rudy Gay, and discussions and debates and chest-thumping continues to rage.
"I don't think I've ever seen as much talent in 2 college baseketball games as a I saw last night in Chicago," Johnson wrote on his Twitter page Wednesday. "Parker, Wiggins, Randle...it doesn't matter which player you think will be the #1 pick they're all special in their own right."
They might never share the same court again. But make no mistake, this engagement is a "limited time only" showing. Enjoy it while it lasts.