Kentucky Wildcats freshman sensation Julius Randle is likely done and headed to the NBA after just one season, but it might be with the National Championship in hand. With every NCAA Tournament win, Randle’s team—as well as his NBA Draft stock—are surging. For all the criticism the one-and-done era at Kentucky has attracted, a second national championship in three years is more than enough validation to silence those detractors. And the 6’9 forward from Dallas is the epitome of the one-year phenomenon. The McDonald’s All-America was a top five recruit coming out of high school in Dallas, Texas, where he led Prestonwood Christian to three state titles.
Randle’s status as one of the nation’s top next-level talents, however, has just begun to take shape. After sputtering through the last half of the season and averaging just 11.6 points during the Wildcats eight regular season games, he has made valuable contributions in every NCAA Tournament game. Against Kansas State in the second round, Randle dominated the paint with a game-high 19 points and 15 rebounds. His scoring output took a bit of a dip in the next round against Wichita State with 13 points, but he grabbed a game-high 10 boards to go along with 6 assists. Next was a Sweet Sixteen matchup with in-state rival Louisville and Randle’s muscle-bound 250 lb frame was an absolute necessity against Montrezl Harrell and the massive Cardinal front line. And he made good with 15 points, 11 rebounds and two clutch free throws down the stretch that helped seal the victory. In the Elite Eight against Michigan, Randle again dominated the low post with 16 points and a game-high 11 boards.
Projected by many pundits as the fourth overall pick behind Andrew Wiggins and Joel Embiid of Kansas and Jabari Parker of Duke, Randle is already armed with a wealth of skills. Fluid athleticism, unique ball-handling skills, great first step and rare combination of finesse and power are just some of the superlatives used to describe him. The term “overrated” has also been used. Randle’s defense, particularly against longer opponents, is seen as a cause for concern. According to NBA Draft analysis, Randle was so heavily recruited coming out of high school because his size and strength were unmatched 99 percent of the time, leading to dominant performance after dominant performance. His defensive skills are also in question, but he is a freshman and that part of a 19-year-old’s game is usually the last to surface. So in that respect, Randle has ample time to develop that part of his game.
Whatever his NBA prospects, much more pressing is this weekend’s National Semifinal matchup between the Wildcats and second-seeded Wisconsin. The Badgers topped overall number one seed Florida early on in the season, while Kentucky lost to the Gators three times. And if that’s not unsettling enough, in the only game in which the Wildcats competed with Florida, losing by just one point after getting trounced by double-digits in the other two, Randle sank to a season-low four points. It is probably safe to say that Randle and Kentucky are hoping for a UCONN upset in the other semifinal.
Commentary by Rick Sarlat