Coming into the season, Kentucky’s game with Baylor at Jerry World looked like a sure thing for Big Blue Nation, mostly a way for Julius Randle to play in front of a hometown crowd. For the fifth consecutive year, John Calipari had brought in the No. 1 recruiting class in the country. Many were calling it his best class, if not the greatest class of all-time. People were selling 40-0 T-shirts. Kentucky was No. 1 in the preseason polls; Baylor was No. 25.
Isaiah Austin might be the only person who would have put those two teams on the same level. In the week before the game, the Baylor sophomore made some eyebrow-raising comments to the Dallas Morning News: “Coming out of high school, everyone wants to go with the hype. Coach [Scott] Drew is just as great a coach as coach Calipari. We have just as great as faculty and staff … Kentucky is not better than us in any way, shape or form.”
That hot take is not shared by many talent evaluators. DraftExpress has Austin at No. 26 on their Big Board; Chad Ford has him at No. 41. Randle is No. 2 on both lists, behind only Andrew Wiggins. Austin is averaging 11 points and five rebounds as a sophomore, an underachiever who might sneak into the late first round. Randle, averaging 18 and 12 in his first nine college games, already has NBA teams jockeying to draft him.
Kentucky comes into 95 percent of their games with an overwhelming physical advantage, but there’s no intimidation factor against Austin. After all, he was this close to being a Kentucky player himself. He was the No. 3 player in the class of 2012, a McDonald’s All-American pursued by every big program in the country. Basketball is in his blood; he’s the nephew of Ike Austin, a journeyman center who played for eight NBA teams in nine seasons.
Austin and Randle are both Dallas products. Austin went to Arlington Grace Prep and played for Texas PRO in the summer; Randle went to Prestonwood Christian Academy and played for the Texas Titans. One was the No. 1 PF in the class of 2012 and the other was the No. 1 PF in the class of 2013, so an AAU rivalry was inevitable. That’s what Austin was telling the media -- don’t talk to me about these guys like I don’t know exactly who they are.
At the start of the game on Friday, you could see where Austin’s confidence came from. On Baylor’s second possession, he isolated Randle in the low post. He faked to the middle, turned back towards the baseline and hit an easy 6-foot bank-shot. Two plays later, he took Randle out to the perimeter, faking a dribble hand-off before casually nailing a step-back 3 in his eye. At 7’1 225 with a 7’3 wingspan, Austin has no trouble shooting over Randle.
Randle, at 6’9 255 with a 6’11 wingspan, is no slouch physically. But while he has the size and speed of a high-level NBA PF, he lacks elite length for the position at the next level. He is vulnerable to tall shooters like Austin, particularly if he doesn’t use his strength to be physical and knock them off their position. That’s the type of weakness only NBA prospects can expose; the average college big man has little chance of scoring over the top of Randle.
Kentucky vs. Baylor was the rare NCAA game that featured two NBA-caliber frontlines. Randle is flanked by Willie Cauley-Stein, 7’0 245 with a 7’3 wingspan, and backed up by Alex Poythress, 6’9 230 with a 7’0 wingspan. Austin’s frontcourt partner is Cory Jefferson, 6’9 220 with a 7’0 wingspan. Rico Gathers, their back-up, is listed generously at 6’8 270. The only one of the six without a definite NBA future, Gathers could probably be a great NFL TE.
The result was a game played well above the rim, putting the strengths and weaknesses of each big man on display. Jefferson had four rim-rattling dunks off offensive boards and pick-and-rolls, but he struggled to create his own shots against the bigger Kentucky defenders. Randle, meanwhile, had problems with the length of Baylor’s hybrid zone. Austin blocked his shot several times -- he kept going to the lefty hook, no matter what side of the box he was on.
Calipari switched the defensive assignments at half-time, putting Cauley-Stein on Austin and Randle on Jefferson. Not only is Cauley-Stein as long as Austin, he’s stronger and more athletic too. A late-bloomer who played WR in high school, he moves far more fluidly than most centers his size. He’s a human eraser, averaging 9 points, 8 rebounds and 4 blocks a game on 60% shooting. It’s early, but those are basically Nerlens Noel’s numbers.
With Cauley-Stein keeping Austin in check, Kentucky carved out a small lead. Randle patiently played out of the high post, finding the open man in the zone and dishing out four assists. The Wildcats defense, though, kept the Bears in it, unable to keep them out of sets or turn them over. Up 2 with 4 minutes left, Austin got the ball on a back-door cut, showed it on one side of the rim and then dunked over Cauley-Stein on the other, giving Baylor a lead they wouldn’t relinquish.
Austin finished with 13 points, six rebounds and five blocks, playing Randle (16 points and 8 rebounds) to a draw. The Baylor zone did a great job of minimizing his weaknesses, allowing him to use his length without getting into individual wrestling matches in the paint. But while it’s a big win for the Bears, it doesn’t mean they have turned the corner -- Austin and Jefferson outplayed Noel and Poythress in 64-55 victory in Lexington last season.
Nevertheless, on an individual level, Baylor’s big men made some money on Friday. What 4’s and 5’s with NBA potential do against each other is more important than what they do against guys going pro in something other than sports. Two years ago, when judging Thomas Robinson and Terrence Jones, you were better off throwing away their statistics and focusing on how they fared in the two games that Kentucky played Kansas.
Neither Randle nor Austin is anywhere close to a finished product. At 19 and 20, respectively, they are still 7-8 years away from the prime of their careers. Randle is better equipped to physically dominate undermanned opponents, but there aren’t many of those guys at the next level. And while he is the safer bet right now, that doesn’t mean it’s a guarantee. Young big men don’t necessarily develop on a straight line.