The Champions Classic was billed as a showdown between the No. 1 and 2 teams in the country with Michigan State squaring off against Kentucky, and then featured a clash between the top two freshmen in the nation in Andrew Wiggins and Jabari Parker.
Then Julius Randle stole the show even though it was in a losing effort.
The Wildcats big man poured in 27 points and grabbed 13 rebounds and entered the national consciousness by dominating the physical interior of Michigan State. The Spartans, who are loaded with upperclassmen, are arguably the most bruising team in the country and play with a football-like mentality. For a freshman to perform like that in just his third career game certainly made a statement.
It also firmly entrenched him in the National Player of Year discussions for the remainder of the year.
Who is the best player in the nation?
It’s not hard to see why Randle is a serious candidate for college basketball’s top individual honor if you simply glean over his box scores. He is a walking double-double and has posted one in every game Kentucky has played this year. He’s scored more than 20 points four of the seven times he has taken the court and shot at least 50 percent from the field in every game but one.
However, there is an incredible amount of pure talent across the country this year, and the field is loaded with worthy contenders (so is the race for the No. 1 pick in the next NBA draft).
That being said, Randle has a number of things working in his favor.
Kentucky is always in the spotlight, so as long as he continues to post eye-popping numbers, voters will take notice. Furthermore, Randle stands out on a team that is absolutely loaded with McDonald’s All-American talent. It is easier for someone with Marcus Smart or Doug McDermott’s ability to stand out on an Oklahoma State or Creighton than it is for Randle at Kentucky.
Even teams like Duke and Kansas for Parker and Wiggins don’t have the supporting cast that Randle does. Yes, it makes it more difficult for opposing defenses to solely lock in on Randle, but there is only one ball to go around in Lexington. For Randle to be scoring 19 points a night with that talent is noteworthy.
There are also some factors working against other Player of the Year candidates. Duke’s defense (including that from Parker) may ultimately be Parker’s undoing, Kansas and Oklahoma State must face each other and Smart and Wiggins could cancel out the voting from the Midwest region, and Creighton (fairly or not) still isn’t considered a major squad on the national scene.
Kentucky will be ranked the highest out of all these teams by the end of year because of its overall talent level and the SEC schedule it plays. The Wildcats will rack up wins at incredible pace against their opponents, and Randle will consistently be posting double-doubles in the process.
Whether that will result in a National Player of the Year trophy or not remains to be seen, but Randle certainly has a compelling case.