Fresh Start

Led by Julius Randle, Kentucky's Kiddie Cats—the youngest (and most scrutinized) quintet in the country—have roared from a No. 8 seed struggling to find an identity to the most dangerous entry in the Final Four
April 07, 2014

FIVE MONTHS after coaching Kentucky to the 2012 national title, John Calipari made a visit to a home on the northern outskirts of the Dallas--Fort Worth metroplex, with a recruiting pitch for Julius Randle and his mother, Carolyn Kyles: Come to Lexington for one year, chase a national championship and dress nice on NBA draft night in 2014. Kyles had been a 6'2" power forward at Panola junior college in Carthage, Texas, and at UT-Arlington, from 1982--83 through '84--85, and as a single parent she had raised an even more formidable power forward. Randle, who wears his mother's old jersey number, 30, has always been big for his age. He was 5'10" in the fifth grade, and 6'9" and 250 pounds by the time he was a senior at Prestonwood Christian Academy and the nation's No. 1 frontcourt prospect. When he committed to Calipari, along with twin 6'6" guards Aaron and Andrew Harrison out of Houston and three other McDonald's All-Americans, the Wildcats' recruiting class was hailed as the greatest ever, trumping even Michigan's Fab Five. Optimism ran wild. With all that talent? They would come, conquer, turn pro. Calipari did not tamp down fan and media speculation that the kids might be good enough to go 40--0.

When Randle arrived in Lexington in the summer of 2013, he was greeted by a familiar skyline in a piece of Photoshopped art that had been hung, behind glass, near the entrance to the film room. Against a nighttime backdrop there was Dallas's late-modernist Bank of America Plaza, framed in neon green, and the futuristic Reunion Tower, topped by its glowing red orb. Hovering above the buildings was a huddle of Wildcats and a logo for the 2014 Final Four, at AT&T (formerly Cowboys) Stadium in Arlington. Randle walked by it en route to every film session and workout. He glanced at it hundreds of times. "Motivation," he called it, "to make it home to my mom."

As the months wore on, that artwork seemed to mock the Wildcats. In February and early March, Calipari's latest one-and-done model was structurally flawed, undone by egos, bad guard play, and player and coach frustration. Kentucky lost 10 games and fell out of the Top 25 by the end of the regular season. Calipari moaned that his was "the most overanalyzed team I've ever seen in the history of the game, at any level."

Randle says that the constant dissection of the all-freshman starting lineup's shortcomings "made men of a lot of us." They were growing up, and Randle was averaging a double double (15.1 points, 10.7 rebounds), but it wasn't the fun kind of growing up. Kyles could see it in her son's face during losses. "Julius has these big, beautiful eyes," she says, "and they'd be drooping down, drained, like he'd lost his whole world."

The postseason was the Wildcats' stage for reinvention: They went from acting lost to forgetting how to lose. Kentucky entered the NCAA tournament as a No. 8 seed in a Midwest region of death that included unbeaten Wichita State as the No. 1, defending champ Louisville as the No. 4 and runner-up Michigan as the No. 2—all three had made the Final Four a year ago. Instead of going down as the great flop of the one-and-done era, Kentucky made a Final Four run thanks to a rejuvenated Randle, who has dominated on the offensive glass, and fully realized versions of the Harrisons, with Andrew pushing the ball in transition and Aaron serving as the clutch shotmaker. The Cats arrive in Arlington this week as the lowest seed in a Final Four that includes No. 1 Florida, No. 7 UConn and No. 2 Wisconsin, but with a powerhouse level of respect. They're favored in their semifinal against the Badgers and have more NBA prospects (eight) than the other three teams combined (seven).

CALIPARI SAYS every one of his young teams has been different, and this one, unlike his 2012 title winner—which had veterans with Final Four experience mixed in with wunderkinder Anthony Davis, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Marquis Teague—needed the full four months to figure it out. The players had to accept team-friendly (rather than draft-showcasing) roles, while Calipari learned he had to be more positive, cut back on offensive sets and encourage the running game. In the third round in St. Louis, Wichita State's historic run at the first undefeated national championship since Indiana in 1975--76 ended at the hands of the newly freewheeling Wildcats, with the Harrisons combining for 39 points and Randle putting up 13 points, 10 rebounds and six assists. "That game," Kyles says, "is when I could see all the joy come back in his eyes." She saw it again against rival Louisville at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis, where Randle demoralized the Cardinals with 15 points and 12 rebounds (five offensive), and—in a last-minute play he admitted he would not have made three weeks earlier—passed up the chance to take a contested hook in the post in favor of kicking the ball out to Aaron Harrison. The reward? Aaron knocked down the go-ahead three with 39 seconds left.

Kyles did not get to witness her son's joy against Michigan in the Elite Eight on Sunday, when he had yet another double double (16 points, 11 boards). She left Lucas Oil Stadium around the 11-minute mark of the second half because she needed to be at work at a Dallas energy-consulting company on Monday morning, and the last flight from Indy to DFW left at 7:50 p.m. The timing had her in tears. "I've never walked out on Julius like that before," she says, "and it had been such a rough year for him that I wanted to be there if he cut down the nets." She was accompanied by former Oklahoma power forward Jeff Webster, who was one of Randle's AAU coaches and is his mentor and de facto father. Webster assured Kyles that although the Wolverines led 55--51, the Wildcats had a comeback in them, just as they did against Wichita and Louisville. "Julius has that swagger again," he told Kyles.

It was a swagger they knew from Texas, where Randle and the Harrisons shared a rich AAU history. Randle was the prize of the Texas Titans, a Dallas-based club that was funded by Kenny Troutt, a team parent and telecom billionaire; they traveled to tournaments like an NBA team, in private planes with deluxe accommodations. The Harrisons were the leaders of the Houston Defenders, which was founded by their father, Aaron Sr., a used-car dealer.

The Defenders were loaded with D-I prospects; they won their first matchup with the Titans, in the spring of fifth grade, and the majority of meetings thereafter. "Because we had Julius, we were always in those games," says Titans coach Scott Pospichal. "Those three were always dominant: One year it would be Julius ranked the top player in Texas, the next year he'd be third because the twins had jumped ahead of him." They kept on like that through high school, with Randle fortifying his reputation as a game-changing interior force, Andrew an elite point guard and Aaron a cold-blooded sniper. "We probably played 70 games in our final summer," says Aaron Sr., "and Aaron hit 12 game-winners. It's to the point where I expect it out of him."

While Harrison Sr. was still in the stands at Lucas Oil Stadium, Kyles and Webster were rushing through security at Indianapolis's airport. They made it into a sports bar in Concourse B for the final three minutes and learned that Julius had grabbed two offensive rebounds and scored four points to key a 9--0 run that put Kentucky up 60--55. They watched on television as Michigan rallied to tie with 31 seconds left, and then saw Aaron Harrison, just as his father expected, hit the game-winning three from deep on the right wing with 2.6 to go. When Randle—the Midwest region's Most Outstanding Player—embraced Aaron after a 75--72 victory, they looked like kids, and not world-weary men.

Webster says there was never a plan for the kings of the Texas AAU scene to join forces in college. Kentucky just happened to be the best place for all three of them, he says, "and the reason is what they're doing now." They're carrying the first all-freshman starting lineup to the national semifinals since the Fab Five in 1992. They're setting themselves up to dress nice on draft night—but first they're going back to Texas. In a way Kyles didn't walk out on Randle on Sunday; she just got a head start on playing Final Four hostess. Before boarding her flight, she texted a news bulletin to those who'd sent game updates, helping her cope with her tears: Julius, she wrote, is coming home!

The Cats arrive in Arlington as the lowest seed, but with a powerhouse level of respect.

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PHOTOPhotograph by BOB DONNAN/USA TODAY SPORTSUNERRING AARON Harrison's trey against the strong defense of Michigan's Caris LeVert was just the latest in his series of game-winners. PHOTODAVID E. KLUTHO/SPORTS ILLUSTRATEDSLAMMING IT HOME With his fourth straight double double, Randle made sure that he'd head back to the Dallas metroplex for the season's final weekend. PHOTODAVID E. KLUTHO/SPORTS ILLUSTRATEDOUT OF THE BLUE The rapidly maturing Wildcats learned how to play together—and that helped them rediscover the joy of winning as a team.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)