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Arizona Wildcats, Brandon Randolph embracing their new underdog status

“People are really sleeping on us, and I like it because when we go into the season, we’re going to start killing it.”

Alabama v Arizona Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Brandon Randolph has seen the preseason headlines.

You know, the ones that project the Arizona Wildcats will miss the NCAA Tournament or finish in the bottom half of the Pac-12, a conference they steamrolled last year.

He can’t help but smile when he thinks about them.

“To be honest with you, it’s cool,” he said. ”It’s actually making me kind of hyped because I can’t wait till we surprise people. I love doing that.”

Randolph is used to being overlooked, after all. When he played for a loaded team at Westtown School, he shared the court with elite prospects like Mo Bamba and Cam Reddish, who garnered the spotlight.

It wasn’t until Randolph’s senior year that he started to assert himself as one of the top recruits in the country.

Eventually, he rose into the Top 40 in his class and held offers from blue-bloods like Kansas and North Carolina. Arizona coach Sean Miller called Randolph a “late bloomer.”

“I was never ranked that high,” Randolph said, “but I just worked to it.”

Now, he is out to prove himself again. The 6-foot-5 swingman is one of six returning players Arizona will have to rely on after it lost its entire starting five over the offseason.

While the Wildcats did add five newcomers — a mix of graduate transfers and four-star recruits — the ascension of their returners, none of whom were impact players last year, is what’s going to make or break them in 2018-19.

“Most of the time the success starts with the returners that they improved from one year to the next,” Miller said in May. “They’re the most experienced. They lead and kind of create our culture for the young guys who have never been here before. And with the returners that we have, each of those guys in their own right has something to improve on over the summer.”

Randolph got a brief taste of stardom last season. When Rawle Alkins was sidelined with a foot injury, Randolph made four starts and scored in double-figures in three of them.

But he peaked there.

Alkins returned in early December, Randolph moved back to the bench, and never scored in double figures again.

By the end of the year, the then-freshman was out of the rotation altogether. In Arizona’s last six games, Randolph played a grand total of 15 minutes. But he stayed upbeat.

“It never affected me mentally,” he said. “I know how good of a player I am and I also know how good of a player like Rawle and [Allonzo Trier] are. I think Coach Miller had the right intentions and thought we did pretty well last season until we got to the NCAA (Tournament).”

That’s when Arizona’s tumultuous season culminated with an embarrassing 21-point loss to 13-seed Buffalo in the first round. It also marked the start of an uncertain future for the program.

Alkins, Trier, Deandre Ayton, Dusan Ristic, Parker Jackson-Cartwright and Keanu Pinder were on the way out, and nobody was on the way in. The Wildcats had zero commitments at the time.

However, over the next few months, they pieced together a make-shift recruiting class that led to pundits lauding them for “bouncing back” after their original recruiting efforts were hammered by the FBI probe.

Randolph said he was never worried about the program’s direction, anyway.

“I had no doubts,” he said. “We have a great coaching staff. They’re great at recruiting and they told me how many guys they were trying to bring in and they kept their word basically.”

Besides, Randolph knew what was ahead for him: a new role and lots of playing time. He is projected to be a starter as a sophomore now that Alkins and Trier have departed.

“Oh, that’s very exciting,” Randolph admits. “Playing in Tucson and starting, hearing your name being called and stuff like that, it’s going to be great. And I got a little peek of that last year when Rawle was out. And this year I definitely have a better opportunity.”

While the Wildcats still have several former four- and five-star recruits like Randolph on their roster, they won’t be as talented in 2018-19.

They know it. Everyone knows it.

“I mean, we’re all very talented guys, but obviously we don’t have any Deandre Aytons this year,” joked sophomore guard Alex Barcello.

The only way they can make up for that talent loss, Barcello says, is to outwork the competition.

NCAA rules only allow players to work out with coaches for four hours a week during the summer, but they are permitted to lift weights five days a week.

“So every time we step into the weight room and in the gym ... we’re busting our butts,” Barcello said. “Every time we step out on that court, we’re together. And if you watch one of our workouts, I mean our energy level’s up, no matter if it’s 6:45 a.m. or 4:30 p.m. We’re working.”

Randolph’s physique is proof. He arrived at Arizona last summer weighing 165 pounds. Now, he is hovering around 185.

Randolph averaged 3.7 points per game last season, relying mostly on his jumper. To be a more well-rounded player, he knows he needs to be able to score in the paint, which requires the ability to absorb contact against bigger, taller defenders.

Thus, Randolph’s goal is to add strength, but keep his wiry athleticism.

“Every aspect of the game will be a lot easier for me because last year I saw how strong Rawle and Zo were,” he said. “They would bully me in practice, but once I got stronger it kind of came easier for me.”

And Randolph only expects things to get easier and easier from here. Not just for him, but for the team — because nothing can be worse than all the ups and downs they endured last year, he said.

“Going through that ... it kind of shows our mental toughness,” he said. “And we’re going to be really good this year.”

Really good? Randolph was asked.

“I think people forget how good we actually are because we lost our whole starting five,” he responded. “People are really sleeping on us.”

He paused and smiled again.

“And I like it because when we go into the season, we’re going to start killing it.”