LAWRENCE — Kansas will open the NCAA Tournament on Friday night, but the Jayhawks have already suffered a deflating March loss.
Julius Randle, the No. 2 overall recruit in the Class of 2013 and one of KU coach Bill Self’s top targets, announced his decision to attend Kentucky on Wednesday, spurning Kansas in the process.
In a televised ceremony from his high school in Plano, Texas, Randle slipped on a Kentucky hat while leaving the hats of his other three finalists — KU, Florida and Texas — on the table.
Randle, a 6-foot-9 power forward from Prestonwood Christian Academy, would have fit seamlessly into Kansas’ frontcourt, filling a large void in a program that will be trying to reload for a 10th straight Big 12 regular-season title in 2013-14. Instead, he’s off to the Bluegrass State, joining one of the most lauded recruiting classes in college basketball history.
With Randle on board, Kentucky coach John Calipari has compiled a class that has six players in the top 20 of Rivals’ 2013 rankings. The Wildcats have already signed twin shooting guards Aaron and Andrew Harrison, the No. 4 and No. 5 recruits in the class, in addition to small forward James Young (No. 10), center Dakari Johnson (No. 13) and forward Marcus Lee (No. 18).
“The final straw that came to me was the system,” Randle said on ESPNU. “I felt like the system at Kentucky was a great system.”
Randle’s recruitment was one of the most-watched in the country, a heavyweight battle between some of the sport’s blue-blood programs. There was Kansas and Kentucky, plus Florida and Texas.
The Kansas staff had spent years courting Randle, shelling out of plenty of resources to land a blue-chip power forward that has drawn comparisons to Chris Webber, Zach Randolph and Wayman Tisdale. When Randle was a freshman at Prestonwood, his sophomore teammate, power forward Zach Peters, orally committed to Kansas. By then, the Jayhawks’ staff had already made Randle a priority.
The following fall, Peters and Randle, also AAU teammates on the Texas Titans, attended Late Night in the Phog at Allen Fieldhouse.
Peters arrived in Lawrence last summer as a freshman in the Jayhawks’ 2012 class. But after playing for KU last summer during the program’s European trip, Peters’ career was derailed because of injuries and he left Kansas at the end of the fall semester.
Of course, Peters’ departure also left the Jayhawks with a need at the power-forward spot. With seniors Jeff Withey and Kevin Young exiting this spring, the Jayhawks will return a frontcourt that includes freshmen Perry Ellis and Jamari Traylor, and redshirt Landen Lucas. The Jayhawks will also receive frontcourt help from incoming center Joel Embiid, a 7-footer from Gainesville, Fla., by way of Cameroon.
Randle made his visit to Kansas in February, visiting on the same day ESPN’s “College GameDay” was in Lawrence for the Texas game.
Kansas has one open scholarship remaining after signing five players during the early signing period. That, of course, could change depending on players leaving school early for the NBA or other roster defections.
In addition to Embiid, KU has signed guards Conner Frankamp (No. 31, according to Rivals), Wayne Selden (No. 26), Brannen Greene (No. 25) and Frank Mason (No. 134). The Jayhawks are also still targeting small forward Andrew Wiggins, the No. 1 overall prospect in the class of 2013.
It’s worth adding, of course, that Wiggins is also still considering Kentucky.