DAVE SKRETTA, AP Sports Writer
ARLINGTON, Texas (AP) — Kentucky coach John Calipari might as well have built a pipeline to Texas during the recruiting season, or at least found a nice place to rent somewhere between Dallas and Houston.
As the Wildcats prepare to play Wisconsin in the Final Four on Saturday night, three of their most prominent players — bruising forward Julius Randle and twin guards Andrew and Aaron Harrison — are basically heading home, eager to play in front of hundreds of family and friends.
“It’s just added motivation that it’s in Dallas,” said Randle, who grew up just down the interstate from AT&T Stadium, “but any kid wants to play in the Final Four. I don’t care if it’s on the moon. You want to play in the Final Four. But for it to be in my hometown, it’s special.”
It’s special, too, for the Harrison boys, who grew up just outside of Houston.
“It should be fun going back,” Andrew said.
Still, it’s not the same kind of homecoming from them as for Randle, who remembers doodling on a piece of paper in study hall in high school when he learned that the Final Four had been awarded to the glitzy new football stadium that Cowboys owner Jerry Jones was raising.
“It’s kind of weird. It’s just what I asked for,” Randle said. “I was in study hall and I didn’t have anything to do, and I found out it was here, the national championship, Dallas. It’s just where I wanted to be and it’s always been my goal.”
To reach that point, a team that starts five freshmen had to grow and evolve, and Randle was part of that. He always had the physical tools — an NBA-ready body, a tenacious rebounding ability, a deft touch — but he lacked the finer points of playing in the post.
Then there’s the mental part of the game, where Calipari went to work.
“He’s played better and better as the year’s gone on,” Calipari said Thursday. “Basically he’s doing less, which looks like more. But it’s hard to convince young people that way. It’s hard to convince any of our players that if you’re doing less, you’re going to look better.”
There are times where it’s been hard to look a whole lot better.
There was the time Randle had 27 points and 13 rebounds against Michigan State. And the 25-point, 13-rebound performance against Ole Miss. And any of the four double-doubles that he’s had in the NCAA tournament, capped by that sterling performance against Michigan.
It was at that game in Indianapolis that Randle’s mother, Carolyn Kyles, found herself in a predicament: She had to catch a flight back home to get to work the next morning.
So she left with the outcome hanging in the balance, and Randle helped Kentucky to a thrilling 75-72 victory, ensuring she would get to see him play at least once more this season.
“I knew she was going to have to leave,” Randle said upon reflection, “so I just wanted to make sure I won so I could see her again.”
Randle wound up being a big reason why the Wildcats are still playing. He finished with 16 points and 11 rebounds against the Wolverines, making several key plays on both ends of the floor in the closing minutes of a game that sent Kentucky to the Final Four.
“I just wanted to make sure I did whatever I could to get back there,” said Randle, who has averaged a team-leading 15.1 points and 10.7 rebounds for the Wildcats.
“Back there” is home for Randle, who starred at Prestonwood Christian Academy, a powerhouse program in Plano, helping the school win three state titles. Randle was also a member of the Texas Titans, an elite AAU program, and his mother played basketball at Texas-Arlington.
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