Kentucky Basketball: Have We Seen the Best of Julius Randle Yet?

Thad NovakCorrespondent IFebruary 21, 2014

LEXINGTON, KY - FEBRUARY 15:  Julius Randle #30 of the Kentucky Wildcats shoots the ball during the game against the Florida Gators  at Rupp Arena on February 15, 2014 in Lexington, Kentucky.  (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
Andy Lyons/Getty Images

After playing like the second coming of Dan Issel during Kentucky basketball’s nonconference season, freshman Julius Randle started looking mortal in SEC play. In light of his 25-point, 13-rebound outburst during Tuesday’s demolition of Ole Miss, though, it’s not a bad time to ask, just how good will this kid get by season’s end?

Tuesday’s showcase was the third straight double-double for Randle, who (despite January’s mini-slump) still ranks second in the SEC in rebounding. On the other hand, it was also just the second time all year that he’d scored 20 points in regulation against a major-conference opponent.

Indeed, Randle’s typical game is looking less like a dominant scoring night and more like his showing against Florida: respectable offense (12 points on 4-for-7 shooting), great rebounding (13 boards) and some occasional plays made in other areas (in this instance, a pair of assists).

It’s also becoming apparent that even at 6’9”, 250 pounds, Randle isn’t immune to struggling against top-tier athletes. Whether it’s shot-blocker Jordan Mickey of LSU holding him to six points or bulldozer Jarnell Stokes of Tennessee limiting him to two rebounds, Kentucky’s leader isn’t guaranteed to be the most productive big man on the floor on any given night.

That said, he’s also turned in some fantastic performances against stars every bit as talented as the ones who’ve kept him in check. He racked up 20 points and 14 boards in an overtime loss to Bobby Portis and Arkansas, and his biggest game of the year (27 points, 13 rebounds) came against mighty Michigan State and then-healthy Branden Dawson.

In spite of that valiant effort against the Spartans, one of the few assets Randle hasn’t demonstrated this season is the kind of leadership needed to put the team on his back and turn defeat into victory. Kentucky’s wins this season have mostly been of the blowout variety, and one of the few close ones (a seven-point defeat of rival Louisville) saw Randle sit out the second half with leg cramps.

That’s the biggest reason that Wildcats fans should take heart at the sight of Randle’s overpowering showing against the Rebels this week. He had turned in one of his weakest performances—12 points, five rebounds—in the first meeting between those two teams. His ability to come back and crush that same opponent two weeks later suggests a killer instinct that’s been too little apparent the rest of the year.

Randle will get at least three chances to avenge Kentucky's losses in the next few weeks, as his team faces LSU, Arkansas and Florida for regular-season rematches. If he can show the same kind of fire in those games as he did against the overmatched Rebels, it will be a major statement to the NCAA tournament field (and the NBA scouts who have been scrutinizing him all season).

Randle is prohibitively likely to jump to the pros after one year in Lexington, Ky., and as of now, his legacy will be some strong individual numbers and an enormous disappointment in the won-lost column. His performance on Tuesday was the best indication all season that he’s moving toward becoming a leader in addition to being a star.