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NBA Saturday: Randle Leading Kentucky, Helping Stock

Julius Randle has led the Kentucky Wildcats to the Elite Eight and helped his draft stock in the process. … Frustrated Indiana Pacers can’t end slump

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Randle Leading Kentucky, Helping Stock

The Kentucky Wildcats are in the Elite Eight after defeating the defending champion Louisville Cardinals, 74-69, on Friday night. By advancing this far, Kentucky has turned around a roller-coaster season that, up until the tournament, was extremely disappointing.

Entering the season, the Wildcats were ranked No. 1 in the nation and there was some debate over whether the team could go undefeated. However, the Wildcats ended up losing 10 games (including several losses to unranked teams) and ultimately fell out of the top 25 poll in mid-March. Kentucky’s young roster struggled throughout the campaign after initially being described as the greatest recruiting class of all-time, and earned an eight-seed in the NCAA Tournament.

However, none of that matters now, as the Wildcats are three wins away from a national championship. The adversity that Kentucky faced earlier in the season helped them become the battle-tested team they are today, and their freshmen have matured and improved significantly since the start of the year.

Julius Randle, the freshman forward who has been the team’s catalyst throughout the tournament, is thrilled that the squad is finally living up to the lofty expectations set for this team.

“In a way, I think we have [rewritten the history of this team],” Randle said. “We just kind of had to put the past behind us and leave it where it was. It’s a new season, the postseason. That’s really all we can worry about, survive and advance, and we’ve got to take one game at a time. We carried momentum from the SEC Tournament to the NCAA Tournament, and we’re just taking it a game at a time.

“We just have committed to each other on both ends of the floor. Our chemistry is a lot better, and we’ve listened to Coach. He’s made our roles really simple and we’ve just listened to him and it’s kind of working out for us.”

Randle has been tremendous during the tournament, averaging 15.6 points and 12.3 rebounds while shooting 50 percent from the field. His 23 double-doubles this season leads all Division I players, and he’s just the second freshman in NCAA history to have that many double-doubles in a season (the other being Michael Beasley, who had 28 in 2008). In addition to scoring and rebounding, Randle has also done a good job creating for his teammates, as evidenced by his six assists in Kentucky’s upset win over Wichita State. Rather than taking on double teams and putting up bad shots, Randle is taking what the defense gives him and making the right play more often than not.

This was the case in the final minute of Kentucky’s game against Louisville, when Randle spun into a double team and delivered a perfect pass to Aaron Harrison, who hit a three-point shot for the go-ahead score. Moments later, Randle hit two clutch free throws to seal the win for the Wildcats. After the game, Kentucky head coach John Calipari praised Randle’s decision making and pointed out that the clutch assist was an example of just how much his star player had grown in recent weeks.

“I look at Julius where they’re running at him, the biggest play that Julius made is the pass for three instead of shooting it,” Calipari said. “Now three weeks ago, he would have shot a hook to try to get that at the basket.  Now, he’s just playing the game as it comes. … They’re maturing right before our eyes. They’ve surrendered to the team. It’s all about helping your teammate get better and winning games.”

“Coach has done a good job of defining my role,” Randle said. “When the lane [is] open, sometimes that’s what you got to do, just do your best to get to the basket. But at the same time, I love to create for other people.”

Randle had 15 points and 12 rebounds against Louisville and after the game, Cardinals head coach Rick Pitino said that the freshman power forward was the main reason Kentucky came away with the victory.

“The major factor,” Pitino said, “was the way Randle played on the backboard.”

With Andrew Wiggins, Jabari Parker, Joel Embiid, Marcus Smart and Doug McDermott among others sitting at home, Randle is the top NBA prospect remaining in the tournament. Throughout the season, Randle has been in the shadow of Wiggins, Parker and Embiid, usually being mentioned as a potential top-five pick in the 2014 NBA Draft but rarely being included in the debate over who will go first overall. The same thing happened during high school recruiting, when Wiggins and Parker were heralded as the next big things while Randle was ranked as the third best player in the class and treated as if he were a notch below the top two.

Like Wiggins and Parker, Randle is 19 years old and has a ridiculous amount of potential. Unlike Wiggins and Parker, Randle stepped up in the tournament and had some of his best games of the season while playing on college basketball’s biggest stage. When asked how he has been able to ignore the pressure and deliver these clutch performances, Randle downplayed his heroics.

“I don’t really look at it as pressure,” Randle said. “I know that I have great teammates and they have my back out there, so I’m really not even worried about it. Like Coach always says, ‘Don’t worry about winning or losing, just go out there and play.’ Just seeing us getting better each game is encouraging in itself. I know that I have teammates who, when a challenge presents itself, will rise to the challenge. … I didn’t really feel any pressure. I really wasn’t worried about where this game could take us, I was just focused on the game and the game plan that Coach had for us. That was really all my focus; I wasn’t really worried about winning or losing.

NBA executives have been impressed with Randle’s recent production, and his draft stock has increased with Kentucky’s postseason run. Randle has drawn comparisons to Zach Randolph and Paul Millsap, and he has confirmed that he could be a franchise-changing player at the next level. One NBA scout, speaking on the condition of anonymity, recently praised Randle’s game to Basketball Insiders.

He’s a man, and he won’t get pushed around by other players,” said the Eastern Conference scout. “He has the ability to face up and take guys off of the dribble. Right now, he’s left-hand dominant, so he must work on his right hand and keep improving his jumper if he wants to take the next step and really wreak havoc. He should be able to play in the league for a really long time, but the question is how good will he be? People around the league are really interested to see how he measures out – how tall and how long he is. When I look at Randle, I see some Jamal Mashburn and some Paul Millsap.”

Randle will try to continue Kentucky’s incredible run on Sunday, when the Wildcats take on the two-seeded Michigan Wolverines.

“All of the adversity we have been through all season, just to see us coming together as a team and getting better each game and finally get big wins, we just enjoyed it,” Randle said. “Everybody’s happy and we just have to keep building on it.”

The Wildcats had some growing pains throughout the season, but that’s to be expected with such an inexperienced group. Only three players on Kentucky’s roster have been in the tournament before, seldom-used guards Jon Hood, Brian Long and Jarrod Polson.

“Every team I’ve ever coached, I am hard on,” Calipari said. “I push them. I drive them. This team I was hard probably longer than other teams, but from body language to habits to other things, you couldn’t cheer them on those things. They were not acceptable. Now, you’re seeing a team that’s playing more together, that shows less emotion.  And people always say I coach young teams – I’ve never coached five freshmen, so it’s taken longer. But it doesn’t matter that it took longer, it’s just that they’re starting to get it. … I am proud of them.  I am enjoying coaching this team.  I am able to do less now.  I’ve been able to be more of a cheerleader. They are playing their best basketball.

“If this was a 25‑game season… thank goodness it was a 30‑game season, so we had five more games to get this thing right and get the plane down before the runway ran out and we were in grass.”

The important thing is that Kentucky has figured things out and started clicking at the perfect time. Randle has been a big reason for that, and the talented forward is finally getting the recognition that he deserves.

Frustrated Pacers Can’t End Slump

The Indiana Pacers are tired of losing. On top of that, they’re tired of talking about losing. The team has dropped four of their last six games, and they are 8-8 in March.

The Pacers thought they had snapped out of their recent slump when they defeated the Miami HEAT on Wednesday night, but then they followed up that victory with a disappointing 91-78 loss to the Washington Wizards last night. After the game, Indiana’s players were clearly frustrated.

“I don’t know,” Roy Hibbert said when asked about the Pacers’ struggles. “We’re tired of talking about it and we’ve been in this rut for a month. I don’t know. You take one step forward and three steps back. One win, then we play like this. I don’t have a sound bite for you.”

“It is frustrating, because we know what to do,” Paul George said. “We know who we are, we know how much we put in to get to where we are at. We are just not taking care of the opportunity. We showed spurts that we can be that team. We just have to maintain the consistency with it.”

“At this moment, we look vulnerable,” David West said. “We look like teams can just come at us. Again, it’s because we don’t play a good brand of basketball. .. We’re verbalizing it, we talked about it somewhat after the game. We got to get it. We feel like we got enough pieces. We’ve got to get it. We get up for the Miami [HEAT], get up for the Chicago Bulls, and then come out and lay donuts against the Wizards and these other teams. We’ve got to get it.”

Indiana’s problems are mainly on the offensive end of the floor. In their last three losses, they’ve scored 78 points against Washington, 77 points against Chicago and 71 points against Memphis. The Pacers are an elite defensive squad, but that kind of offense isn’t going to lead to wins and the team understands that.

“We have to keep improving our offensive execution, create open shots, and then we have to make shots,” Frank Vogel said. “We are creating shots on poor shooting nights, so we have to make shots. I thought we came out with great energy, we were ready to play, and the lack of shot-making took our spirits a little bit.”

“We’re just not moving the ball and getting everybody involved,” Hibbert said, after taking just eight shots. “I mean, you could rehearse stuff for the past month and it’ll tell you what our problems are.”

The Pacers have nine games remaining on their schedule, with contests against elite teams like the San Antonio Spurs, Miami HEAT and Oklahoma City Thunder and contests against non-playoff teams like the Milwaukee Bucks, Orlando Magic and Detroit Pistons.

Time is running out for Indiana to end this slump in the regular season, and they certainly don’t want to be playing like this in the postseason. This is a team with championship aspirations and a legitimate shot at hoisting the Larry O’Brien trophy. But you’d never know it from watching the Pacers in recent weeks, and that’s very concerning for Indiana.

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