The relative struggles of this University of Kentucky basketball team have followed a similar script as the Wildcats of three seasons ago — a squad full of McDonald’s All-Americans who took more time than expected to find their way.
Julius Randle was the leading scorer and rebounder on that 2013-14 team, one of six freshman McDonald’s All-Americans — along with Aaron Harrison, Andrew Harrison, Dakari Johnson, Marcus Lee and James Young — who joined returning players Willie Cauley-Stein and Alex Poythress to form a group that was supposed to be unstoppable.
Randle — now in his third season with the Los Angeles Lakers — joined national NBA reporter Adrian Wojnarowski’s podcast — The Vertical — this week, and the former Wildcat’s time in Lexington was a major topic of discussion.
“I think we thought it was going to be easier than what it was going to be,” Randle said. “Because we had the talent. We had everything there at our disposal. But it’s not easy. And looking back, I don’t think we came in with the mindset that we didn’t have to work, or we didn’t have to put forth the effort. We just were young, and we didn’t know much. We had to take our lumps to realize that we need each other.”
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Randle brought up the “40-0” T-shirts that were printed before that season even began, when the idea of running the table was being embraced by some of the young Wildcats.
UK lost its third game of that season — to Michigan State — and also dropped non-conference games to Baylor and North Carolina before losing six regular-season Southeastern Conference games and going into the NCAA Tournament as a No. 8 seed.
“The year that we had, it was so up and down,” Randle said. “We had so much talent, but we didn’t know how to play with each other. By the end of the year — the SEC Tournament — it clicked. And it looked like we were a force to be reckoned with, we weren’t going to be stopped.”
That UK team lost three of its final four regular-season games — the last one, an 84-65 drubbing at Florida — before recovering in the SEC Tournament and nearly knocking off the top-seeded Gators in the title game.
That season had the “tweak,” as coined by John Calipari.
This season has the “reboot,” which seemed to be going OK in Tuesday night’s victory over Louisiana State until a breakdown in the game’s final few minutes made things much closer than they should have been.
We just were young, and we didn’t know much. We had to take our lumps to realize that we need each other.
Julius Randle, former UK basketball player
Randle’s bunch, of course, rode a series of thrilling NCAA Tournament games all the way to the national finals, losing to seventh-seeded UConn, 60-54.
While Randle didn’t say anything about the current Cats during The Vertical podcast, there are clear parallels to his group and this UK team.
One interesting point raised by the former Cat came in response to Wojnarowski’s question of what Randle didn’t know coming into the NBA about how he could make himself a more effective player.
Randle said “moving without the ball” was a major adjustment, and one he’s still learning.
“Especially now, on the AAU scene and when you go to colleges, guys have a tough time playing with other players, because they’ve always been so ball-dominant in their career,” he said. “So you kind of have to have that adjustment, which is one of the big reasons that I went to Kentucky, because there was so many of us — McDonald’s All-Americans, top-rated guys — and we kind of had to figure out how to play with each other. And Coach Cal did a great job of doing that.”
Randle also discusses growing up with a single mom, becoming a father himself, his recruitment to UK and the pressures of being a highly ranked recruit, learning from Kobe Bryant and his own career with the Lakers.
Listen to the full podcast below and check out previous The Vertical podcasts on iTunes. Past episodes include conversations with Dwane Casey, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Nerlens Noel.