January 7, 2014 11:44:23 AM
STARKVILLE -- The Mississippi State men's basketball team is searching for a way to keep Kentucky freshman forward Julius Randle off the free throw line.
MSU coach Rick Ray has another day and a half to devise a plan to handle Randle before his team opens Southeastern Conference play against Randle and No. 14 Kentucky at 7 p.m. (CW) at Rupp Arena in Lexington, Ky.
On Monday, Ray said the Bulldogs (10-3) will face a challenge in containing Randle, who is backing up claims he would be one of the top players in the 2013 recruiting class by averaging 18.1 points and 10.6 rebounds a game for the Wildcats (10-3).
"He's a lottery pick," Ray said. "Everybody knows he's that good."
According to NBADraft.net, Randle is projected as the No. 5 pick in its NBA mock draft. ESPN draft analyst Chad Ford never has had Randle ranked lower than fourth on his 'Big Board' of top 100 prospects.
"We're going to have to double him in the post every time he touches the ball because we know one person isn't going to be enough for him to give it up," MSU senior forward Colin Borchert said.
Randle, a 250-pound power forward, has taken advantage of tighter officiating by leading the Wildcats with 9.08 free throws attempted per game. With only Gavin Ware, Borchert and Roquez Johnson in the post, MSU will need to avoid foul trouble.
"With only eight scholarship players, I still don't know how that emergency (power forward) is going to work out if foul trouble becomes an issue," Ray said. "We're playing people at spots by necessity and not by how they're designed."
While Johnson will need to provide minutes at center for Ware, it is undetermined how Ray will maneuver the forwards if foul trouble becomes an issue. SEC coaches anticipate officiating to be more disciplined in league play. Kentucky has attempted 85 more free throws than the second-highest SEC team this season.
"The things that concern you about Kentucky is the way they can draw fouls," Ray said Monday on the SEC media teleconference. "We've done a good job of playing defense without fouling, but Kentucky is at another level in terms of that challenge."
MSU said it will have to slow the tempo because it doesn't have the depth or the maturity to play at Kentucky's pace without committing turnovers. A slower tempo could mean more half-court scenarios and more fouls called.
"I'm sure people will think we're going to go in there scared, but we can't and won't play that way," Johnson said. "We have to be able to play defense with good fundamentals."
Cramps have been the only thing that have slowed Randle. He missed a good portion of a home victory against Louisville on Dec. 28 after suffering from muscle cramps. The Louisville game marked at least the second time this season Randle has suffered from cramping. Kentucky coach John Calipari excused Randle from the news conference following the game against Michigan State in Chicago after he complained about cramping.
In an attempt to avoid this issue, Calipari said Monday the Wildcats have been scrimmaging for an hour and a half almost every day. He said the coaches are limiting the whistles and allowing the players to go for longer stretches.
"They always get mad I blow the whistle too much. Now they're saying, 'Coach, pick up the whistle,' " Calipari said. "Now it's just up and down, up and down, up and down ... trying to get them to stretch out, mental toughness, and get them to execute both on offense -- to create good shots for each other -- and on defense to make it tough on the other team for the entire shot clock. We're going to see how this plays out. Maybe it helps us. Maybe it didn't. Maybe I wore them out."
Kentucky has navigated a challenging non-conference schedule with Randle, twins Andrew and Aaron Harrison, and fellow freshman James Young going through the ups and downs of their first seasons. It has lost to Michigan State, Baylor, and North Carolina. It has victories against Providence, Boise State, and Louisville. The victory against Louisville was the team's last game.
"If you don't come to play and compete and battle, you're not quite ready, you're out, and we'll win without you," Calipari said. "That is very important for a team to know. I've made it a point to let them know that."
Follow Matt Stevens on Twitter @matthewcstevens.