By LARRY VAUGHT
Kentucky didn’t win at Arkansas, but it may have found the team leader it needs.
Julius Randle has been UK’s best player this season, but the freshman forward has not been a Michael Kidd-Gilchrist type of leader. Of course, few players are. But this Kentucky team needs one of its best players to take charge on the court — and Randle did that in Tuesday’s 87-85 overtime loss.
Maybe it was being benched early in the second half for a defensive lapse that lit the fire in Randle. Whatever it was, once he came back into the game he was a dominant player inside. However, more importantly, he was talking on the court, playing with great energy all the time and not afraid to make clutch plays.
No, he wasn’t perfect. He had a late turnover. He missed some free throws. He didn’t always finish shots inside.
But he became a leader with his effort and take-charge attitude.
He proved that even more after the game when he took partial blame for the rebound dunk on the game’s final shot that gave Arkansas the win. Clearly it was teammate James Young who didn’t block out and teammate Andrew Harrison didn’t help. Randle was not in position to make that play, but he said he should have still made it — the kind of stance a team leader takes.
“It’s my fault. It’s a team effort. That play is not what won the game,” said Randle, who had 20 points, 14 rebounds and two blocked shots in 32 minutes. “I saw the whole thing and I could have rebounded out of position, too. If one person messes up, we’ve got to have each other’s back. That’s what we got to get to.”
That’s what coach John Calipari has been saying all season and Randle’s actions and words suggest he has figured that out. No one could fault the way he’s played. But for Kentucky to raise its overall level of play by March, someone has to be in charge on and off the court and the muscular, talented Randle seems to be that Cat.
“Julius played. Julius, it’s why he gets cramps because he gets whacked so much. It’s hard. He’s sumo wrestling and running. It’s hard. It’s a new sport. He’d be a gold medalist in that sport,” Calipari said after the foul-marred game Tuesday.
He does get beat on. Maybe it’s because he’s often strong enough to play through the contact or maybe it’s due to him sometimes holding the ball too long or forcing plays (he had a team-high five turnovers).
“I thought Julius did some good stuff. He’s still holding the ball too much, so he turned it over. Anytime he held it, he turned it over. When he passed it, he made plays,” Calipari said. “We were beating the crap out of each other. It was hand-to-hand combat, hands up, chest a guy, try to knock him over with your chest. That’s how the game was played, so we both played that way.”
Randle, as a leader should, wouldn’t use officiating or the hostile atmosphere as an excuse for losing.
“We knew it was going to be a hostile environment. That’s no excuse. I think we did a good job of talking to each other on the court, but just got to learn how to finish down the stretch in environments like that,” Randle said. “Certain things weren’t going our way but we’re not making any excuses. We’ve just got to keep getting better as a team. We’re young but we’ve got to learn how to finish off games and just little things down the stretch we’ve got to get better at and can’t let affect us.”
And don’t overlook the fact that leg cramps did not bother Randle as they had two of the previous three games when he was a non-factor the second half. Calipari didn’t play him as many minutes — he was actually out the first 90 seconds of overtime — to let him rest. But either through going harder in practice, diet changes or something else, Randle played like Randle the second half and that’s what UK needs.
Randle credited “my mom and my family” for helping with the cramping issue.
“They’ve been seeing what I’ve been eating, so I think my diet had a lot to do with it this week,” he said.
Teammates knew Randle had been drinking more fluids and doing things to try and stop the cramps.
“He really just tries to get a lot of fluids in himself and he just tries to get back out there,” teammate Dakari Johnson said.
That’s because he understands UK needs his rebounding and scoring. But maybe, just maybe, he also now grasps that UK needs his leadership as much as his talent. If that lesson was learned by him and understood by teammates, a painful loss Tuesday could still turn into a defining moment for Calipari’s Cats in March.