John Clay: Randle recognizes need to be difference-maker

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistDecember 21, 2013 

Julius Randle had just scored a career-high 29 points.

"I got to step up," said the freshman, sitting in a director's chair on a raised stage against a back wall of Rupp Arena, media all around.

Julius Randle had snagged 10 rebounds for his ninth double-double in a dozen games.

"I've got to do better," said the freshman.

Kentucky had rallied from an 11-point deficit during the first half to hold off visiting Belmont 93-80 in large part because of Randle's muscle and determination and physical skill.

"It's the time of the season where there are no more excuses," said the freshman.

It's the Christmas break. Final exams are over. Camp John Calipari will soon be in session. It's also Louisville week. The defending national champ Cardinals visit Rupp Arena on Saturday. So do the CBS cameras. So does the entire college basketball world, peering in for a good, hard look.

Kentucky sits 9-3. The Cats have no embarrassing losses. They have no eye-popping wins. They have a team full of talent and immaturity, skill and inconsistency, flashes of brilliance mixed with periods of puzzlement.

"We've still got things we've got to get better at," said Calipari, who benefited this day from an energy boost provided by a pair of Kentuckians.

Jarrod Polson, the senior guard from West Jessamine who had played just 25 minutes all season, popped off the bench to contribute 21 minutes of heady play, including a serious spark at the end of the first half.

For his 22 minutes, Dominique Hawkins, the freshman from Madison Central, did what other Cats appear hesitant to do, play in-your-face defense and risk a floor burn or two for the sake of securing an all-important loose ball.

"That's the only way Dominique knows how to play," said Randle.

What we thought we would know by this time was all about the Harrison twins, but it hasn't quite worked out that way.

Aaron has been more up than down. He scored 23 points this Saturday to go with his 20 last Saturday in a losing cause at North Carolina. But Andrew's struggles continue. Foul trouble limited him to 20 minutes against Belmont. He scored seven points and did not have an assist.

James Young, the other heralded member of this fab freshman class, failed to find his rhythm. Young scored six points in just 20 minutes.

"The big difference in the game was Julius Randle," said Rick Byrd, the Belmont coach. "We couldn't stop him from making it except by fouling him. He's so strong, our guys fouled him and he doesn't even notice. I felt like we did all we could, we just have no bulk inside to match (him) inside."

Few do. And it's not as if this is something Randle doesn't already know. It's a matter of exploiting it.

"It's time to step up and take on leadership," said the freshman.

You could start to see that Saturday, including at one point when Andrew Harrison picked up his fourth foul. As we have seen in the past, a distraught Harrison hung his head and held his hands atop his head. In stepped Randle for a quick heart-to-heart.

"You can't let that affect the team and bring the energy of the team down," Randle said.

Coming out of one of the timeouts, Randle was the one clapping his hands, getting down in a stance, showing some intensity.

Look around the country and there is Jabari Parker, scoring 23 points in Duke's win over UCLA on Thursday night. There's Aaron Gordon, helping Arizona to the nation's No. 1 ranking. Andrew Wiggins is still feeling his way, but few doubt the Kansas freshman's ability or potential.

Randle was ranked right there with that trio. In some cases, he was ranked ahead of them.

"Coach is giving me every opportunity and I've got to step up," he said Saturday. "I've got to talk more, run the floor, rebound, be a great defender."

With Louisville on the horizon, was Saturday a step forward?

"Me personally, I feel like I got a little better," said Julius Randle, "but there's so much I can work on."

John Clay: (859) 231-3226. Email: jclay@herald-leader.com. Twitter: @johnclayiv. Blog: johnclay.bloginky.com.

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