There's no doubt the Kentucky Wildcats' super freshman Julius Randle is one of the most talented players in the country. If he enters the NBA draft as expected, it would be a shock to see him on the board after the first five picks. Even with that almost certainly bright future ahead of him, the 6'9" power forward needs to step his game up as the Wildcats enter SEC play.
On Wednesday, Kentucky will host the unranked Mississippi State Bulldogs at Rupp Arena. While the SEC isn't stocked with Top-25 teams, (just two to be exact) conference play is always tough and more physical.
Randle's game is predicated on power, so he may find himself being met with a bit more resistance during the rigors of SEC play.
Man-for-man, the Bulldogs don't match up well with Kentucky, but muscular 6'9", 268-pound sophomore big man Gavin Ware will represent a tough physical challenge for Randle. Out-muscling Ware probably won't be an option, but Randle has the quicks to face up and go around him.
Perhaps the most compelling aspect of this potential matchup is how well Randle rebounds against Ware and the Bulldogs. Mississippi State hasn't been a strong rebounding team this season. Their 34.8 boards is just 224th in the nation, but that doesn't necessarily mean Randle will run wild on the glass.
He is averaging 10.6 rebounds per game, but a lot of the gaudy totals on the glass came early in the season. He's been held to single digits in rebounding in four of his last six games.
As Randle tries to contend with a frontcourt player capable of bodying up with him, his activity on the glass could be affected.
The tangle with Ware could be a precursor to his two meetings with the No. 10-ranked Florida Gators and Patric Young. The Gators' 6'9" rock is another player Randle will have to use his quickness against.
There are challenges like this throughout the SEC season. Up to this point in the year, Kentucky has been a slight disappointment. Despite producing the top recruiting class in the country with Randle, Aaron and Andrew Harrison, James Young and Dakari Johnson, the Wildcats are just 10-3 and ranked 14th in the nation.
They did score a big 73-66 win over the No. 6-ranked Louisville Cardinals on Dec. 28. Randle was a monster in the first half of that game. He had 17 points, (but only three rebounds) before leg cramps kept him out of most of the second half.
His teammates stepped up big for him in that one, but they will need him to be the dominant force he has the talent to be if this team is going to reach its potential. Bleacher Report's NBA draft guru Jonathan Wasserman said this of Randle:
Because he's able to play on the perimeter facing up, Randle is tough to take out of a game. You can't double him 20 feet from the rim. And few power forwards are laterally quick enough to keep Randle in front of them in space.
The more of this side of Randle we see moving forward, the more he'll dominate and create opportunities for his team—if he's willing to give the ball up against collapsing defenses. His passing has been an issue here and there. He's had five games with at least four turnovers. That includes his eight-miscue game against the Michigan State Spartans on Nov. 12.
Oddly enough, Randle had 27 points and 13 rebounds in the game, but the Wildcats lost. Consistency against top competition is what he must find for his own development, and the betterment of the team on a whole.
Despite the lack of highly-ranked teams, Kentucky can still become a more hardened and confident team through conference play. Randle must lead the charge with his play and effort.
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