Julius Randle is nowhere near losing his status as Kentucky basketball’s MVP, but he’s also nowhere close to being the player he was to start his freshman season. The man who opened the year with seven consecutive double-doubles has just two in the first nine games of SEC action.
If the Wildcats are going to make any noise in the Big Dance, Randle will have to be the linchpin of that effort. However, the drop in his performance isn’t a reason for panic in Lexington.
In the first place, the rest of the ‘Cats are expanding their roles in response to the hints of Randle’s mortality. James Young and Aaron Harrison are becoming more consistent as scorers. Even the two-headed center combo of Willie Cauley-Stein and Dakari Johnson is contributing in the points column.
Secondly, Randle was so extraordinary early on that his numbers are capable of weathering a mild downturn. Even the subpar performances he's turned in against conference opponents have seen him average 12.9 points and 9.0 rebounds per game, an effort that's up there with the SEC's best.
Perhaps most importantly for John Calipari’s team, the timing of Randle’s return to earth couldn’t be better.
One of the major reasons SEC foes have had an easier time limiting the freshman’s production is that they adjusted to the strengths and weaknesses he showed during his breakout early games. Now, it’s Randle’s turn to make the adjustment, and he has nearly five full weeks to do it before postseason play begins.
Randle’s array of post moves—not to mention his remarkable court vision—provide good reason to believe that he has the brains to back up his immense physical talent. As he sees the way teams such as Ole Miss have defended him, he’ll learn from that 12-point, five-rebound disappointment and come out with a new plan of attack for the rematch in two weeks.
It’s also worth noting that the high level of competition Randle is facing doesn’t really deserve credit for his reduced numbers. After all, he played well against towering Baylor and turned in one of his best games of the year against the loaded Michigan State front line.
Even if Randle doesn't bounce back, he has enough production left to be a valuable contributor on a Kentucky team that’s playing noticeably better overall than it did to start the year. If and when the 6'9" star does resume playing like a national Freshman of the Year front-runner, he’s got a chance to put Kentucky right back in the mix for a deep NCAA tournament run.