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By LARRY VAUGHT
Less than 24 hours after Kentucky’s season ended with a first-round NIT loss, the Wildcats may have made themselves the favorite to win the 2014 national title thanks to the commitment of 6-9 power forward Julius Randle. Randle is a consensus top three recruit from Plano, Texas, and his commitment gives coach John Calipari six of the nation’s top 20 recruits — and the top recruit at four positions — for next season.
“With the addition of Julius Randle, Kentucky is the odds-on favorite to win the national championship,” said Scout.com’s national recruiting analyst Evan Daniels said Wednesday after Randle’s announcement. “He’s a guy that could have gone into any program and really made a difference. He can score on the perimeter, but he can also use his body to post up inside and he’s a tough kid.”
Randle injured his foot early in the season and was expected to be out all year. Instead, he returned for postseason play and led his team to a state championship. He played in seven games overall for Prestonwood Christian in Dallas and averaged 25.1 points, 12.7 rebounds and 2.1 assists per game. He made 75 percent of his free throws and shot 39 percent from 3-point range.
He had seemed to narrow his choices to Kentucky and Kansas before picking the Wildcats. He also had Texas and Florida in his final four.
“Next year, I’ll be playing for the University of Kentucky,”Randle said during the announcement on ESPN. “I love all the schools and all the coaches, but the final straw came to me was the system. I felt like the system at Kentucky was a great system, and they have a lot of great players going in there and you’re going to have to battle.”
Randle joins point guard Andrew Harrison, shooting guard Aaron Harrison and center Dakari Johnson — all also ranked No. 1 at their positions — in this year’s Kentucky recruiting class that also includes small forward James Young, power forward Marcus Lee and Derek Willis. Young is considered either second or third at his position, Lee is a top 20 player and Willis is an in-state three-star recruit who was the first to commit to Calipari’s 2013 recruiting class. And Kentucky is still in the running for Huntington (W.Va.) Prep forward Andrew Wiggins, the No. 1 overall recruit. He is considering Kentucky, Florida State, North Carolina and Kansas.
Randle said the abundance of talent — UK freshmen Archie Goodwin, Alex Poythress and Willie Cauley-Stein all indicated after Tuesday’s loss at Robert Morris that they were leaning to returning for another season — was no reason for him not to pick the Wildcats.
“I think, like they did the year before (winning the national title with a freshman-dominated team in 2012) the team was a unit and I played USA Basketball with a lot of great players,” Randle said. “I think I’ll adjust well, and it’s a great fit for me. To be able to battle with those guys every day in practice is only going to make me better, help me prepare for the next level. Playing with great players, it was a plus for me, it wasn’t a negative at all.”
Randle will join the Harrison twins, Johnson, Young and Lee in the Jordan Brand All-American and McDonald’s All-American games next month.
“This eliminates any debate about Kentucky being in the driver’s seat for the greatest recruiting class ever,” said ESPN recruiting analyst Dave Telep. “Four No. 1 players at their position, and throw-ins Marcus Lee averaged 20 rebounds (per game) as a senior and James Young is our No. 2 small forward. This group is amazing.”
Randle’s game is built on strength, power and versatility. He has ballhandling skills to create matchup problems, can be a relentless rebounder and is a physical presence.
Daniels is not worried about UK having too much talent.
“I think overall they fit very well. They have a little bit of everything,” Daniels said. “Two really good scoring wings in Aaron Harrison and James Young. I think Dakari and Marcus and Julius all bring something different to the table in the post. They all fit great. A lot of quality kids.”
This assures Calipari of a fourth straight No. 1 recruiting class. However, this year’s class fizzled and wound up in the NIT a year after Anthony Davis, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Marquis Teague helped UK win a national title.
“This class is that much better than the class UK had this year,” Daniels said. “Nerlens Noel was on the level of the recruits Kentucky has coming in, but he’s the only one. Poythress and Goodwin are good players, but this group is much stronger. Randle and the Harrison twins would probably go pretty high in the NBA draft out of high school. They are that good.”
Daniels isn’t sure how Randle’s decision could impact Wiggins.
“Andrew been very close to the vest. It seems things are a little clogged up at Kentucky, but I don’t know his thought process and what his plan is. He’s kept it all so close to the vest it is impossible to know if it will hurt or help,” Daniels said.