On Sunday night, Julius Randle called a play.
It was one of a hundred in Kentucky's 75-72 victory over Michigan, but Chris Mayberry was watching. Closely. He was watching Kentucky, but he was really watching Randle, watching as the player he coached this time last year blossomed into the NBA prospect the basketball world had already pegged him to be.
That's why the play mattered. Mayberry knows Randle -- he coached for two years at Prestonwood Christian Academy, which is longer than any college coach will get his hands on him. He knows him, and he knows the key to Julius Randle is freedom. So when the freshman forward called a play, and Kentucky coach John Calipari nodded yes, Mayberry silently rejoiced.
"I think Coach Calipari (and his staff), obviously they know way more than I do about basketball, but as far as Julius is concerned, I'd say that the longer that Coach Cal works with him, he's going to see that he can give him more freedom," Mayberry, who's now head basketball coach at The First Academy in Orlando, said. "That's how he plays his best basketball, is to have the freedom to do some things. He's going to make some mistakes, but he can do so many good things."
Mayberry has thought that from the start, from the beginning of Kentucky's rocky season. He knew that a freshman-packed roster would lead to the expected qualms -- "I got panicked because I have 18-year-olds," Calipari joked about one play during the tournament's first weekend -- but he's been hoping all season that the players, specifically Randle, might show that they deserve more freedom.
Finally, they have.
In its run leading up to the Final Four, Kentucky has beaten Kansas State, Wichita State, Louisville, and Michigan behind monster numbers from Randle, a likely top-five pick in June's NBA draft -- should he leave college as he's expected to do. After scoring just four points in Kentucky's SEC tournament loss to No. 1 seed Florida, Randle has posted a double-double in each of his NCAA tournament game, averaging 15.8 points and 12.0 rebounds. His best game came in what Calipari called an "Elite Eight game" in the Round of 32, when he had 13 points, 10 rebounds and six assists against Wichita State, proving his versatility and earning some of the freedom to diversify his game that he's shown in the ensuing matchups.
After the game, CBS's Greg Anthony pulled Calipari to the side. He told the coach how great he thought Randle had played, how he hadn't tried to do too much, how he played the game as it happened.
As basketball fans and analysts begin to appreciate Kentucky more, the pressure increases as well. Kentucky's successes in the regular season were ephemeral. This run needs to have staying power.
"I don't really look at it as pressure," Randle said after his team beat Wichita State March 23. "I know that I have great teammates and they have my back out there. So I'm really not even, you know, worried about it. ... Like Coach always says, don't worry about winning or losing, just go out there and play. And, you know, just seeing us getting better each game is encouraging in itself. And I know that I have teammates, that when a challenge presents itself, we will rise to the challenge."
For a team like Kentucky, it's too tempting to look to the future, to the next step. The way Calipari operates, his promise of one and done and NBA, encourages it. Randle is arguably the best pro prospect still standing as the Final Four begins, and NBA teams are no doubt salivating. Take a minute, though, and appreciate. Take a minute and remember that when Kentucky's team plane touches down in Dallas this week, not even a year will have passed since Randall's graduation from a high school not 30 miles from AT&T Stadium. Take a minute and understand that when Calipari talks about Randle like a child, it's because he is one, or he was one when he arrived in Kentucky.
"I'm trying to figure them out," Calipari said of his freshmen in March. "We had all freshmen, but you know what? They are responding. I'm happy for them. I'm happy when I see Aaron (Harrison) play like he does or Andrew (Harrison play like he does). I want to see Julius, I want him to show the world what he is as a player. ...
These kids all got better."
They got better, Calipari said, because they learned to listen, and because he learned how to communicate. Two months ago, they weren't ready to listen, the coach guesses. Now, they seem to be. Now, instruction sinks in, and instruction inspires trust, and Randle is becoming the player he was supposed to be.
When Mayberry took over coaching Randle before his junior season of high school hoops, he knew what he had. He knew Randle was his best player, but he also knew his roster was dotted with Division I talent. He knew that sharing the ball would be key and that he couldn't feature one player to the detriment of others. That wouldn't be his best team. Before the season started, the coach sat down with Randle and told him that he hoped he would consider diversifying his role, distributing a bit more. It might lead to fewer points, but the team would be better for it, and Randle did just that.
During this tournament run, Mayberry can't help but be reminded of that conversation. To be the best player he can be, Randle has to fit into his team, and early in the year, that wasn't the case for any of Kentucky's teenage superstars. Now, the pieces are fitting, and Randle just might be the glue that holds Kentucky's grip on a title together.
Which brings us back to that title, to the possibility of confetti falling on Kentucky Monday night and Randle climbing a ladder to slice off a tiny piece of net. Those dreams finally feel like a possibility after four tournament wins, even if every game seemed like the prime time for Kentucky to crack, for the freshmen to be revealed as such, for Calipari's model to take one last gasp and unravel.
At halftime of Kentucky's win over Michigan Sunday, with the Wildcats and Wolverines tied at 37, Randle's mother, Carolyn Kyles, had to leave Lucas Oil Stadium to catch her flight from Indianapolis back to her home in Dallas. For all she knew, it was the last time she'd see her son in a college uniform before he's farmed out to some struggling NBA team come June.
It wasn't. After the game, Randle reveled in the more personal aspect of the win, at least for a moment. "I'm coming home to my mom," he said simply, and for a 19-year-old raised by a single mother, a 6-foot-2 former basketball player herself, that's what this is.
He's coming home for the win. He's coming home for a championship. He's coming home to end this thing where it all started. A month ago, Julius Randle never would have called this play. No one would have.