- Jean-Jacques Taylor, ESPNDallas.com
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ARLINGTON, Texas -- Julius Randle's homecoming is a sweet story, the kind of narrative that plays well on TV and in the local media.
The 6-foot-9, 250-pound freshman, who leads the Kentucky Wildcats in scoring and rebounding and played his high school ball nearby at Plano's Prestonwood Christian Academy, is about to receive more attention than he probably wants over the next few days.
You see, Randle's college career is nearing an end after just one season. He's going to be one of the top players taken in this summer's NBA draft, and no one will be surprised if he's picked first overall. Then he'll be able to take care of his mom, who left at halftime of last week's game in Indianapolis to make sure she would make it back to Dallas in time to work on Monday. And his 79-year-old grandmother, who will see him play for Kentucky in person for the first time Saturday against Wisconsin. The winner of that game will meet the Florida-Connecticut winner for the national championship.
"It has kind of been emotional for my family, all that the team's been through this year," Randle said. "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."
Among the reasons why Kentucky -- which has lost 10 games this season -- advanced to the Final Four is Randle, who is playing his best basketball when it matters most. He's recorded a double-double in each of the first four tournament games.
Randle's play has reached an apex because he's learned to subjugate his ego, something every successful person eventually must do. It's difficult for adults to do, so imagine the challenge for a 19-year-old college freshman who's been praised constantly because of his immense basketball skills for most of his life. Now, imagine four other players who have been as equally celebrated as Randle all starting for the same team. Five alpha dogs, each trying to impose his will on the team and the game. It's hard to win like that. The thing Kentucky coach John Calipari does best is persuade his talented group of freshman that each must sacrifice for the team to thrive.
"Julius has played better and better as the year's gone on," 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. 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."
Slowly, Randle and Kentucky have taken heed of Calipari's words, making them capable of winning a title, a prospect unfathomable a month ago. But the Wildcats have emerged from the NCAA's toughest region. They beat No. 1 seed Wichita State, No. 2 seed Michigan and No. 4 seed Louisville to reach the Final Four. Wisconsin, another No. 2 seed, looms.
"My game has evolved tremendously, just my mindset toward the game, how I approach games and how I make adjustments throughout games," Randle said. "Coach Calipari has done a great job of developing many different parts of my game.
"Coming from high school, you just think that one thing, just scoring the ball and [playing] offensively, but coach has really helped me find ways to impact the game other than just scoring."
No play demonstrates the way Randle has altered his game more than his assist against Louisville in the Sweet 16 that gave the Wildcats the lead in a 74-69 win. Randle received the ball on the right block, where he's usually too massive to handle. He whirled into the lane, but Louisville defended him superbly. Randle leaped high, but instead of forcing a shot, he fired a left-handed pass to Aaron Harrison in the corner. Harrison drilled a 3-pointer to give Kentucky a 70-68 lead it never relinquished.
"Three weeks ago he would have shot a hook or tried to get at the basket," Calipari said of Randle after beating Louisville. "Now he's just playing the game as it comes.
"They're playing for each other. They have finally surrendered and lost themselves in the team. It's just taken us a long time."
All that's left to complete the fairy tale is for Randle to win a title in his hometown.
Julius Randle is hoping a trip home for the Final Four yields a championship for Kentucky.