Under the bright lights of AT&T Stadium at the Final Four Saturday night, all eyes will be locked onto Julius Randle, a fab freshman and one of the nation's top players.
For Randle, who's averaged a double-double in the NCAA tournament with 15.7 points and 12 rebounds, he's been a driving force for the Kentucky Wildcats' march into North Texas. His best game came in Kentucky's first of the tournament, a 19-point, 15-rebound showing against a feisty Kansas State team in a game where Kentucky scored just 56 points.
But his next matchup against the Wisconsin Badgers in the Final Four could make or break Randle's NBA draft stock. The Badgers are a sound yet scrappy team full of chiseled veterans, like Frank Kaminsky and Ben Brust, who expect to be able to challenge and intimidate the youthful Wildcat squad.
Randle's draft stock is already on the rise with his play in March. But a disappointment against Wisconsin could prove just as harmful as his first four games proved beneficial.
If Randle shines, he'll prove that he can handle the pressure of the biggest stages, withstand veteran talent and produce at the type of level that NBA scouts expect of lottery picks.
But, if he is shut down and struggles to play in front of what will be somewhat of a hometown crowd for the Dallas native, it could show that maybe Randle isn't worthy of being a top-five pick. Right now, Gary Parrish of CBS Sports has Randle rated as the fourth-best prospect available in the draft.
|Top 10 NBA Draft Prospects according to CBS Sports|
|8||Marcus Smart||Oklahoma State|
|10||Gary Harris||Michigan State|
Randle's matchup against the Badgers will likely be plenty of Kaminsky, who is fresh off possibly the best game he's had all season. Kaminsky lit up Arizona with 28 points and 11 rebounds, just his second double-double of the season. The only game all year which he scored more points was against North Dakota early in the year, when he poured in 43.
Kaminsky's style of play will put Randle's athleticism to the full test. Kaminsky is a hybrid forward that can bully his way into the paint or step back behind the arc and hit the three. Against Arizona, he was 3-of-5 from deep.
Randle will likely be forced to guard at the three-point line rather than just camping in the paint against the Badgers. If he can lock down Kaminsky, then that'll prove to NBA scouts that he's a versatile forward who can defend with the best of them. If Kaminsky eats Randle up by spreading him too thin, then that could expose Randle.
Ultimately, NBA scouts want to see if Randle can just go out and play with the best of them. That's what the Final Four is, the best in the nation going at each other.
Pressure is a big thing this time of year, and it might be easy for the freshmen at Kentucky, including Randle, to succumb to it. But, according to Joan Niesen of Sports Illustrated, Randle hasn't been letting that pressure get to him during the tourney. In fact, he's been focused on just going out and playing, and that's exactly why had quite a few shining moments in the past few weeks.
"I don't really look at it as pressure," Randle said after his team beat Wichita State March 23. "I know that I have great teammates and they have my back out there. So I'm really not even, you know, worried about it. ... Like Coach always says, don't worry about winning or losing, just go out there and play. And, you know, just seeing us getting better each game is encouraging in itself. And I know that I have teammates, that when a challenge presents itself, we will rise to the challenge."
The challenge is there for Randle. Play well in the Final Four, and you not only have a shot at a national title but you also improve your draft stock against guys like Andrew Wiggins, Joel Embiid and Jabari Parker, none of whom even made it out of the first weekend of the tourney.
If Randle locks down Kaminsky and simply does what he usually does on the offensive end, his stock will continue rising. A bad showing, though, will cause it to stagnate.