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Saturday, December 28, 2013

The Wildcats unlocked something special flourishing without Julius Randle on Saturday

Looking at the first third of Kentucky’s season, and looking at the first half of Kentucky’s game Saturday against Louisville, and looking at the idea of Kentucky’s roster—pretty much any way you choose to look at it or could possibly approach looking at it, taking away Julius Randle would seem to diminish Kentucky’s chances at being the best version of itself.

 

Randle didn’t do anything meaningful in the second half—he played four minutes, took no shots, had no rebounds, accumulated no counting stats in any category—because of leg cramps, and yet the Wildcats thrived when they needed to. Take away your best player, one who was especially effective in the first half, having scored 17 points therein, and how are you better than you were before? There’s probably some psychology there, but the psychology of basketball is far less interesting than the end result, especially when Kentucky and Louisville are concerned. Nobody remembers why things happened in this series; there’s too much history and too much backlog to memorize footnotes. The canon of Kentucky-Louisville is filled with numbers and moments, and nobody remembers why as much as what or how.

 

Kentucky somehow flourished in the second half without Julius Randle. (Photo by James Pennington)

Kentucky somehow flourished in the second half without Julius Randle. (Photo by James Pennington)

The was from Saturday’s game may well be remembered for the wasn’t: Randle. What Kentucky did in his absence was remarkable, considering he was what held them together in the first half, and he was what held them together in the face of adversity throughout the season’s first 13 games. He was the one who near single-handedly beat Michigan State, and his presence was (and is) what every opponent had to over-scout and over-account for in each game. But after shooting 7-of-8 in the first half (his only miss a 3-point attempt, meaning he made every shot he took from inside the arc) and making those seven makes look alternately boring and easy, and powerful and terrifying, he was absent.

 

Kentucky had done exactly what it needed to do—establish leverage and expose one of Louisville’s biggest weaknesses: size and defensive ability in the paint—and just as it had done that, leg cramps took it away. The Wildcats’ response wasn’t as heroic, as immediately stone-etchable as Samaki Walker’s 11 blocks in 1994-95, Patrick Spark’s free throws in 2004-05 or Edgar Sosa’s winner in 2008-09 … but what it lacked in being able to point at a single moment, it made up for, at least in retrospect, in slow-burning stoicism that a young team without its leader—to make a blanket statement—usually doesn’t show.

 

With Randle sidelined, point guard Andrew Harrison took over to lead the team. Randle left the game for good with 11:01 to go—after a Russ Smith lay-up and during the dead ball that followed because Smith was fouled in the process as Randle was stationed on the other end of the floor, unable to run out the play—and over the next 6 1/2 minutes, Kentucky went on a 15-4 run. Andrew Harrison scored six of those points, six of his career-high 18, and he looked like a player comfortable in his own skin for a sustained period of duress for the first time at Kentucky.

 

Harrison said after the game he tries not to listen to the criticisms thrust his way, that his poor body language seems infectious and that it seems to defeat him before he’s lost anything at all. That was not the case Saturday. Harrison also noted that in the Wildcats’ three biggest games so far this season—against Michigan State, Baylor and North Carolina—he did not play well “at all,” according to his own characterization, and he seemed eager to celebrate a performance (and a win) instead of dwell on mistakes.

 

He took the loss to North Carolina particularly hard. He came to the post-game news conference that day in Chapel Hill and lamented the fact that Kentucky, it seemed to him, didn’t yet know how to take a punch. In those games against Michigan State and Baylor and the Tar Heels, the Wildcats had a chance to win late in each. But they wouldn’t respond when challenged, or they wouldn’t respond quick enough, or they wouldn’t respond—you get it. The losses speak. Perhaps the biggest punch wasn’t from Louisville but was from Randle’s leg acting up, and taking that punch—knowing the game’s most ominous presence wouldn’t be there to help guide the Wildcats through it—spoke loud.

 

If Andrew Harrison’s 18 points—only a few of which were spectacular—aren’t immortalized in the Kentucky-Louisville conversation of great moments, alongside Walker and Sparks and Sosa, and more recently Harrellson and Smith, that’s one thing. But in the timeline of the Wildcats’ current season, it was simultaneously what the team couldn’t withstand and exactly what it did withstand, flourishing somehow as it went.

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