DALLAS—He’s back in his hometown for the biggest game of his career. But when Julius Randle landed in his native Dallas on Wednesday, the Kentucky forward didn’t lace up his sneakers and head to a basketball court.
Instead he went golfing.
For nearly three hours Wednesday—just three days before the Wildcats play Wisconsin in the Final Four—Randle and his teammates did their best Tiger Woods impersonations at TopGolf, a popular entertainment complex in nearby Allen, Texas. Kentucky’s players competed with one another by hitting microchipped balls toward various targets, scoring points for accuracy and distance.
How did Randle fare?
"I beat him down," chuckled Jeff Webster, Randle’s mentor and former AAU coach who organized the gathering. "Those guys aren’t the best golfers, but it was a good night for them. They were able to relax and laugh and have fun."
No one needed it more than Randle.
As pleased as he is with how it’s unfolding, the 2013-14 campaign has been taxing on Kentucky’s most high-profile player. The Wildcats opened the season as the No. 1 ranked team in America but eventually lost 10 games and fell out of the polls completely.
The struggles were hardly what Randle anticipated as a member of one of greatest recruiting classes in college basketball history. Still, during the toughest times, it was the 6'9", 250-pound Randle who kept Kentucky afloat.
"I hate to lose," Randle said. "That’s the bottom line. I just hate to lose."
While twin guards Andrew and Aaron Harrison struggled to adapt to the college game, Randle picked up the slack. When the Wildcats couldn’t depend on centers Willie Cauley-Stein (inconsistency) and Dakari Johnson (inexperience), Randle held things down in the paint.
Even during this magical postseason run, when Kentucky has neared its peak, Randle has remained the Wildcats’ steadying force by averaging 15.8 points and 12.0 rebounds in four NCAA tournament games.
"I’m not satisfied," Randle said. "There’s still so much more I can do."
Perhaps, but NBA scouts said Randle has more than lived up to the expectations of those who projected him as a lottery pick in this summer’s draft. Overall the former McDonald’s All-American is averaging 15.1 points and 10.7 boards. Not bad for a 19-year-old freshman.
"He was going to get drafted in the top six or seven all along," an NBA scout told Bleacher Report on Wednesday night. "But now I can’t see him slipping past the top four or five. He’s really helped himself in these last few weeks. He’s really made an impression."
Turning heads isn’t anything new for Randle.
Webster still remembers receiving a phone call years ago from billionaire Kenny Troutt, the founder of the Texas Titans, a Dallas-based AAU program.
"We’ve got to get this Julius Randle kid," Troutt told Webster, an assistant coach.
Randle was in the fifth grade at the time—and it wasn’t long before he took a liking to Webster, a 1989 McDonald’s All-American and the second all-time leading scorer at the University of Oklahoma.
"Every kid I’ve ever worked with says they want to play in college and in the pros," said Webster, who played in the NBA and overseas. "But Julius worked harder than anyone to make it happen.
"I picked him up every day and took him to practice, to the gym or to my house. He listened to everything I said. Every time I spoke to him, I could tell he was storing stuff up in that database in his head."
Eventually Webster became more than Randle’s coach. He was his mentor, the male role model so desperately needed by a child whose father wasn’t a part of his life. When there were problems at school, Randle called Webster. If his mother had a flat tire, Webster came to fix it. The two talked nearly every day.
Randle also leaned heavily on his mother, Carolyn Kyles, a former basketball player at UT-Arlington who raised Randle on her own. Randle wears the same jersey number (30) as his mother, who used to school him on the blacktop when he was younger.
"I would push him around," Kyles told Kyle Tucker of The Courier-Journal last month. "He’d fall down and hop up all mad. I’d throw hook shots on him and it would just kill him.
"I couldn’t feel guilty because this was the position I was in. I had to be both mother and father. I couldn’t be weak. I had to be strong. I couldn’t baby him. I had to make sure my kids were strong and show them how to get out there and fight for what they wanted. That’s what they saw in me every day."
By the time he was a teenager it was clear that Randle had the potential to earn a living playing basketball. If not for a rule that prohibits players from entering the draft until they’re at least a year removed from high school, Randle probably would’ve jumped straight to the NBA upon graduation.
Instead he spent a good portion of his entire prep career as one of the most highly sought-after players in America. As a senior, Randle even penned a running diary about his recruitment for USA Today.
His final list of suitors included Kansas, Florida and Texas, but in the end, Randle couldn’t pass up an opportunity to play for Kentucky, where John Calipari had just guided a team featuring three freshmen starters to the NCAA title. Calipari wore his gaudy championship ring during his recruiting visit to Randle’s home. Both he and his mother were taken aback by its size and by all of its diamonds.
Now Randle is two wins away from getting a ring of his own.
For the Wildcats, winning a national championship would be even more gratifying, considering the bumpy road that led them to the Final Four. A year that began with fans printing "40-0" shirts in anticipation of an undefeated season was often defined by inconsistency and a lack of cohesion.
Kentucky posted just one quality out-of-conference win (against Louisville) and finished 12-6 in the mediocre SEC. Some of the Wildcats admitted the criticism they received—both locally and nationally—often became overwhelming, and that it was hard not to pay attention to talk about their declining NBA draft stock. Shooting guard Aaron Harrison said every game felt like "job interview" because of all the scouts sitting courtside.
Randle, though, said blocking out the outside world was one of the biggest reasons for his success during the regular season. Randle has recorded 24 double-doubles.
"I’ve had fun," Randle told Bleacher Report, "and a big part of it is because I haven’t let the clutter and what other people say get to me.
"There have been times when people could’ve killed us, and people probably have killed us, but I didn’t hear any of it because I don’t care about that stuff. I eliminated all of it. That’s been a huge part of why my confidence has been so steady."
Randle’s most impressive trait is his motor. He plays with a mean streak. Combined with his size and strength, Randle’s aggressive style makes him nearly impossible to stop in the paint.
"Everyone knows Julius’ eyes get big when he gets mad," Webster said. "I’ve heard coaches say, 'When his eyes get big, we’re in trouble.'"
Randle has been immune to criticism. Calipari has harped on him all season about having bad body language when things don’t go his way. Other times he takes an extra dribble or two and drives too deeply into the paint, where additional defenders await.
"I’m really proud of him," Calipari said. "He’s played better and better as the year has gone on. Basically he’s doing less, which looks like more. But it's hard to convince young players that if you are doing less, you’re actually going to look better."
The play that best illustrated Randle’s maturation occurred during Kentucky’s Sweet 16 win over defending national champion Louisville. Randle took a pass on the right block and spun into the lane, but he couldn’t get by his defender. Instead of forcing a shot, Randle jumped and fired a pass to Aaron Harrison in the corner. Harrison swished a three-pointer to give Kentucky a 70-68 lead. The Wildcats never trailed again in their 74-69 victory.
Randle was asked if he would’ve thrown that pass a few months ago.
"Probably not," he said. "Coach Calipari has done a great job of developing so many parts of my game. Coming from high school, you just think (about) one thing, scoring the ball. But Coach has really helped me find way to impact the game other than scoring the ball."
Randle is confident he’ll continue to have success this weekend on college basketball’s biggest stage. And he couldn’t be happier that what will likely be his final appearance as a college basketball player will occur at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, just 30 minutes from where Randle grew up.
For the past two years, the screensaver on Randle’s computer has been the 2014 Final Four logo. About 1,700 of his former classmates at Prestonwood Christian Academy outside of Dallas signed a "Welcome Home" card for Randle this week and texted him a picture of it. It will be delivered to Kyle’s house. On Thursday several hundred students recorded a video and sent it to Randle, whose team responsibilities have prevented him from stopping by the school for a visit.
Randle’s only significant free time occurred Wednesday night, when he took the entire Wildcats squad to his mother’s place to watch television and shoot baskets before their trip to TopGolf. At one point that evening, while his teammates made fun of one another at the driving range, Randle lounged in a chair next to Webster, his friend and mentor.
"He told me, 'I could write four novels about everything that’s happened in the last year,'" Webster said. "He was like, 'It’s been tough, it’s been crazy.
'But it’s been worth it.'"
Jason King covers college basketball for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @JasonKingBR.