When Julius Randle suffers, Kentucky suffers.
That fact was enforced on Saturday, as the No. 11 Wildcats were upset 82-77 by the No. 18 North Carolina Tar Heels.
The freshman sensation finished with 11 points on 3-of-9 shooting and five rebounds. He also turned the ball over four times. It's his lowest output both in scoring and rebounding all season. And that doesn't even take into account how poorly he played on the defensive end.
Coach John Calipari thought Randle didn't come into the game with the right mindset, per Kyle Tucker of The Courier-Journal:
Cal on Randle excited, wanting statement game: "Maybe too excited, because McAdoo made a statement."— Kyle Tucker (@KyleTucker_CJ) December 15, 2013
It's way too early to say that Randle's NBA potential has been demonstrably hurt, or that he's overrated as a player. You can't make judgments like that after one bad game after a large group of games in which he has been awesome.
Instead, Matt Jones of Kentucky Sports Radio had the succinct diagnosis for both the freshman forward and the Wildcats:
Bottom line, UK cant win when Julius Randle plays this poorly— Matt Jones (@KySportsRadio) December 15, 2013
Having the best recruiting class in the country doesn't make as much of an impact when the crown jewel of that class doesn't play up to his best.
Think back to 2011-12, when Kentucky won its last national championship. The Wildcats were loaded with talented players like Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Terrence Jones and Doron Lamb. Anthony Davis was the star who made that team go, though. Without him, UK could've probably made the Final Four, but it wouldn't have been a national champion.
One player has to be the tone-setter. Davis was a few years ago, and now Randle has taken that role on this year's team. His scoring and ability to crash the boards is irreplaceable, so when he struggles as he did on Saturday, Kentucky is a much worse team.
Randle has been great in almost each and every one of the Wildcats' games. Coming into Saturday, he was leading the country in double-doubles:
Julius Randle is ONLY player currently averaging at least 17 points and 12 rebounds per game this season (leads D-I with 8 double-doubles)— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) December 14, 2013
You can accept that he had a sluggish offensive performance against North Carolina. You're going to get that early into the season with true freshmen. A player like Randle is going to press early on, and when things aren't going right, he'll continue digging himself into a hole.
This isn't a unique circumstance.
What you can't accept is Randle's effort and performance on the defensive end. He's too important there to have lapses like he did against the Tar Heels, and it's a problem that has littered UK's season.
However, the Wildcats are prone to lapses on the defensive end. One minute, they'll look great, and the next they're matadors.
When facing top opposition, Randle will likely be matched up with a solid scorer. He'll have to be much better than he was on Saturday, or UK will run into the same exact problems. If Randle can play lockdown defense, not only will he be handcuffing his opposite number, but it could also have a domino effect on the rest of the team and make his teammates up their level of performance.
It's important for Randle to use the loss to North Carolina as a learning experience. Nobody is more essential to the Wildcats' success than he is.