The Kentucky Wildcats may have had one of the better recruiting classes in college basketball's recent history, but they, along with their biggest star in Julius Randle, have faced their fair share of tribulations this season.
Randle had his worst game of 2013-14 in an 82-77 loss at North Carolina on Dec. 14, but the superb freshman will bounce back in the Wildcats' home contest on Saturday, Dec. 21 against Belmont.
Expectations have been almost impossible for Kentucky's crop of precocious players ever since they all committed—six high school All-Americans in all.
The clear standout performer to date has been Randle, who is the only player in the country averaging at least 17 points and 11 rebounds, per ESPN Stats & Info:
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
However, a speed bump came up in Chapel Hill, where Randle had a season-low five rebounds, made just three of nine shots from the field and turned it over four times.
Junior UNC forward James Michael McAdoo knows about dealing with gaudy status. He was rated No. 6 in the 2011 class, per 247Sports.com. Three of the recruits in front of him were drafted in the top three of the 2012 NBA Draft.
McAdoo didn't live up to the hype as a freshman, but his veteran seasoning surfaced on his home hardwood against Kentucky, as he notched 20 points to help drive the Tar Heels to the win.
ESPN's Jeff Goodman believed in the midst of Randle's struggles that he would recover as the season wore on:
Julius Randle seemed to get rattled tonight. He will mature as season goes along.— Jeff Goodman (@GoodmanESPN) December 15, 2013
Then there was another key observation from ESPN personality Mike Greenberg, who expressed that the Wildcats had superior talent but weren't getting it done in spite of that:
Which freshman will be the top performer in Kentucky's game vs. Belmont?
But that's precisely how champions are molded. Randle and all the phenoms on his Kentucky squad have been used to dominance. With an 8-3 record and losses in two of their last three games, they are being broken down to be built back up.
Now it's time for Randle to take the reins, set the tone, and help the young Wildcats bounce back in Rupp Arena against the Bruins.
The reason that Kentucky has a huge advantage is its size on the inside.
Between Randle's exceptional rebounding ability and Willie Cauley-Stein's massive paint presence, the Wildcats have a great chance to dominate the interior against a Belmont squad that averages just 32.3 rebounds per contest—308th in the country.
Earlier this season, though, North Carolina lost 83-80 to Belmont, so it's not as though the Bruins are going to be a pushover. Kentucky head coach John Calipari feels that this squad will be in a "dogfight" every night as opposed to being up by 20 points at half:
This could be another tight affair, but Randle should be able to have his way on the lower block. If he can galvanize what has been a timid team that hasn't quite lived up to the hype on the big stage, it could be a huge turning point for the Wildcats.
Calipari said in the above press conference that he thought his team would be "fine" once they got it. Among the freshmen sensations, Randle is the closest Kentucky has to "getting it."
Giving him the benefit of the doubt coming off the disappointment against UNC is wise, because if Randle truly does get it, he will return to his overpowering ways, put up huge numbers and key a Wildcats triumph on Saturday.