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Cats finding the joy as work pays off

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Julius Randle and the Wildcats will host Arkansas in a rematch of an overtime loss on Thursday night. (Barry Westerman, UK Athletics) Julius Randle and the Wildcats will host Arkansas in a rematch of an overtime loss on Thursday night. (Barry Westerman, UK Athletics)
Since he arrived in Lexington over the summer, Julius Randle has gotten used to his surroundings.

He knows the short walk from his dorm to the Joe Craft Center quite well. The same goes for the path from the training room to the men's practice gym.

This week, something new stopped Randle caught him by surprise after John Calipari had a photograph from the wild celebration following UK's win over LSU plastered on the wall under the word "FAMILY."

"He didn't tell us anything," Randle said. "It's just right there, a big picture."

The photo shows Randle on his back, smiling from ear to ear. His teammates are mobbing him after he hit a game winner in the final five seconds to take down the Tigers for their sixth win in seven games.

The image joins countless other memorable ones from the Coach Cal era, ones Randle first noticed on recruiting visits as a high schooler. Now, he's immortalized alongside his Wildcat predecessors.

"You see all the guys that have come through, to see them on the wall and you've got a picture of all us on the wall, it's a pretty cool thing," said Randle, the reigning Oscar Robertson National Player of the Week.

Most of the time, new decorations are saved for the offseason. This, Calipari believed, was a time to make an exception. It wasn't because of the significance of the shot either.

It was that moment of celebration that Calipari wants his players to remember.

"I think that's part of what, as coaches, it's what we want them to understand: That's what it feels like," assistant Orlando Antigua said. "That's what it's supposed to be about."

Shouldering the burden of expectations, there have surely been times when the Cats have lost sight of that fact, moments when basketball felt more like a responsibility than a game. But after months of work it's all beginning to pay off, paving the way for moments of elation like the one that punctuated the LSU victory.

"We see we're getting better as a team and once you see the results things start to become more fun," Randle said. "You may not see the results for a while but you gotta stick with, stick with it, stick with it and just keep fighting, keep getting better. We see that we're getting better."

The hope, now, is that improvement fuels more improvement and joy fuels more joy.

"They're competing and enjoying the fact that they're competing together, working together and seeing results," Antigua said. "To see that pure joy for one another, it's what the coaching staff has been working to try to get them to."

More than a month ago, UK showed signs of progress in a loss at Arkansas. In spite of dealing with numerous bad breaks, a hostile road crowd and an energized Razorback team, the Cats battled to the final possession.

"It was a tough environment to play, but I do remember that being kind of a little bit of a breakout game for us," Randle said. "It was learning how to fight, not stopping, just playing hard."

Of course, carelessness with the ball and a Michael Qualls put-back dunk in the final second would undo the effort in an 87-85 overtime loss.

"I think we had 17 turnovers that game, but we competed, played hard," Antigua said. "Arkansas comes out and plays really hard. Coach (Mike) Anderson does a great job of getting those guys to play the way they want to play, speeding up the game. I think we handled it pretty good."

No. 17/15 UK (21-6, 11-3 Southeastern Conference) will look to handle it even better on Thursday at 7 p.m. ET as the Cats host their second game in a row with payback on their minds.

"We've watched film of how we played at the end and the difference between then and now, it's a tremendous difference," Randle said. "We play harder. We play more as a team. We care about each other more. It's little things we do on defense. We've made adjustments since that game. We've gotten better each game."

Arkansas (18-9, 7-7 SEC) can say the same. The Razorbacks have won five of six to play their way into the NCAA Tournament conversation, including two of three on the road.

"They're better," Antigua said. "They're right in the middle of the pack with the rest of the teams in the conference and we know they're going to go out and compete and play hard, and we're excited about the challenge."

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