Julius Randle began his journey to Arlington in junior high when, while in study hall, he heard the NCAA awarded AT&T Stadium the 2014 Final Four. Five-plus years later, it’s a dream come true for Randle.
The Plano Prestonwood Christian product returns home as a big part of Kentucky’s freshman run to the Final Four.
“It’s definitely home,” Randle said Thursday. “I’m just excited to be playing. It doesn’t matter if it was in Dallas or wherever it was. Just to have the opportunity and blessing to play in the Final Four is all that really matters to me.
“It’s kind of been emotional for my family, all that the team’s been through this year. They’re just really proud of where we came from. But at the end of the day, we’re just excited to get out there and compete and have another opportunity to play the game.”
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Randle went only 1-for-7 from the field in the 61-60 loss to No. 1 Florida in the SEC Tournament. But he rebounded to record double-doubles in the Wildcats’ four NCAA Tournament games, averaging 15.8 points and 12.0 rebounds.
“He’s played better and better as the year’s gone on,” Kentucky coach John Calipari said. “Basically, he’s doing less, which looks like more, but it’s hard to convince young people that way. It’s hard to convince any of our players that if you are doing less, you’re going to look better.
“I’m really proud of him. He’s a great kid. Again, this has been hard. These young kids, to be challenged and coached, to be critical of their game at times where they have never had anybody critique their game in any kind of a negative way. That’s a challenge, too. That’s taken time for them to understand.”
Kentucky starts five freshmen, becoming the first team since Michigan’s Fab Five in 1992 to reach the Final Four. The Wildcats began the season 22-9 but have won six of their past seven.
“It took us four months, so now they’ve got it,” Calipari said. “They’re young. It takes time. You cannot skip steps. We all want to skip steps. We all want freshmen to be sophomores and juniors. They’re not. You have people say, ‘Well, they’re no longer freshmen.’ They’re still freshmen. They still are freshmen. It just takes time. There were people saying, ‘Well, Cal’s [Calipari] not having any fun. I was having a ball with this team. Now, I had to be really aggressive. I had to raise the standard and say, ‘This is what’s not acceptable.’ I never budged. But I always believed in the team, and I always believed in individual players.
“It is what it is. It just takes time for the kids. I’m proud of them. I know what’s going to happen at the beginning of this game. I can tell you. If you want to, I’ll write it down, and you can open it up after. They’re young. Seven freshmen are playing.”
A Brown influence
Larry Brown and John Calipari go way back. The Kentucky coach served as an assistant on Brown’s staff at Kansas from 1983-85. After the New Jersey Nets fired Calipari, he reunited with Brown as an assistant with the Philadelphia 76ers.
Brown now is the head coach at SMU, which was left out of the NCAA Tournament but reached Thursday night’s final of the NIT.
“You end up dressing like him, walking like him,” Calipari said when asked how Brown had influenced him. “Now, I’m having to have my hips replaced like him. Talking like him. I just learned so much from him.
“He’s been special to me. He’s a mentor, a friend, and obviously now we’re all seeing he hasn’t lost it as a coach. His team obviously is proving that they were better than the [NCAA selection] committee gave them credit for, and I’m happy for him.”