Julius Randle is averaging a team-high 17.8 points and 12.0 rebounds 10 games into his college career. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
Throughout the 2013-14 season, UKathletics.com and CoachCal.com will be here to serve as your primary source for Kentucky basketball coverage. From feature stories to game coverage, video and more, we pride ourselves on being your one-stop shop for all things UK basketball. However, nobody can paint the picture quite like the people who create the artwork. Throughout the 2013-14 year, the players who make the stories will share in writing a season-long blog to share with the Big Blue Nation their experiences, their thoughts and how the year develops in their own eyes. This week, Julius Randle talks about his trip back home to Dallas, the visit to New York and more.
What's up, Big Blue Nation? I've done this kind of thing before for USA Today back in high school, so I'm glad to be doing it again.
We've had a lot going on lately, so I'll start by talking about our trip to New York to play Providence. I enjoyed it a lot. My first time there was last year for the Jordan game but we didn't get to spend a lot of time in the city. I told my mom we have to come back on vacation or something one day, so to be able to go back there and have a day to walk around the city and enjoy it was a cool and neat experience.
Since we flew up there a day early, we had a little bit on that Saturday to ourselves to explore the city. We walked around to a couple stores. We all wanted to shop but we're college kids so we don't really have money like that. We just walked around the city with each other and that was just a neat experience in itself. It was kind of like team bonding.
We got to do some sightseeing while we were there too with Coach Cal guiding the tour from the front of our bus. I'm pretty sure he's been to New York a lot and has a lot of experience with it, so it's kind of cool to get the tour from him even when there were so many buildings. That's Coach Cal for you.
One of the landmarks he pointed out was the 9/11 Memorial and the World Trade Center, which was pretty eye-opening for all of us. I remember exactly where I was on Sept. 11. We didn't hear about it much at school, but I remember coming home and watching the news with my mom. I was only 6 at the time, so I just thought somebody had lost control of the planes and they had crashed into the building. I didn't really know what was going on. But I do remember exactly the day and where I was.
I think the big thing with Coach Cal is he's not just trying to make us basketball players. He's trying to make us mature and make us better people and better men. He's not only going to show us the basketball aspect of life. He's going to show us everything. He's a well-rounded person, so he's definitely helping us out.
Once we got ready to play Providence, the Barclays Center kind of had a different feel from the Jordan game, but it was still pretty cool just to play in a New York atmosphere in Brooklyn and to play in that new arena. We saw Marcus' picture from the Jordan game in the hallway and got the win too, so it was a good night.
I keep getting asked about the ice storm in my hometown last week, so let me just tell you, that was not normal. Dallas in the summer had about 20-something days of 100-plus degrees, so that's not normal. It will snow every year, but that was terrible. I don't know what that was. That's what kind of made me feel like, "I know I'm home, but am I back home?"
What did make it feel like home was getting to see all my family. The place where we were staying was a 45-minute drive without the ice from my house because Dallas is so spread out it's ridiculous, but a lot of my immediate family and my god-family and my mom, they stayed at the hotel. I got to spend a lot of time with my mom and hang out with all of them. After the game, I got to see them a lot. So it was pretty fun even though the ice kind of ruined the mood a little bit.
Randle and his teammates met President George W. Bush while in Dallas. (Photo by Grant Miller/Courtesy of the George W. Bush Presidential Center)
Even though we had some delays, we made it in time for dinner at the George W. Bush Presidential Library. I got to hand a jersey to President Bush and meet him. He doesn't act stuck-up or anything. He's just a normal guy. To meet him was kind of a surreal thing to know that that guy had so much power, but he's just a normal person. It says a lot about the person he is.
It was fun making that trip with the women's team, but four overtimes? Oh my goodness. They showed a lot of heart and I was happy that they won, but I wish it would have ended a lot sooner. At the end of regulation, we went out there and I was all excited to play in front of my family. Then it's overtime. Then we go back into the locker room. Then we go back out and Baylor hits a 3. Finally I just decided to put on my headphones and wait until someone told me it was over because I thought I might be bad luck.
Pregame for Baylor was a lot different from what we're used to, but I still thought you might be interested to hear how I get ready for a normal game. We have a pregame shoot-around five or six hours before the game and then we eat a pregame meal together four hours before the game.
Depending on whether it's a home game, I go to the team chapel. That's just something that's important to me that I spend time hearing God's Word before I go out and play. Then we get there at least two hours before the game. It's my time to listen to my music, warm up, get a good stretch in, meet with Coach twice before the game and then go out and play.
Back to Baylor, losing made the trip home feel a lot longer. At least I had my mom there, but it was tough to know that we lost a game that clearly we had no business losing. The good thing is we knew what the problem was. We know we didn't play hard enough. We know we didn't defend well enough. We didn't run the offense how we were supposed to. We didn't run the floor and get easy baskets. We know that they, at the end of the day, just played harder than us and that's just totally unacceptable.
We were just ready to attack practice the next day and get better from that. If we didn't know why we lost, then it would have sat on me a lot more. But we had the answers to why we lost right after and went back to work.
If we would have had a week after we lost, that would have sucked because I'm ready to play constantly, constantly, constantly. Having that Boise game pretty much right after and then Coach challenging me to play harder definitely was a big help.
It was good being back in Lexington because there's no better place than playing in Rupp, but I also love going on the road and having that feeling of everybody against you. Playing North Carolina this weekend especially, we're the two of winningest programs in the country. The greatest player of all time played there. Hall of Fame coach in Roy Williams, who constantly gets great players.
They're a great team and ultimately as a competitor you just look forward to that challenge. I can't wait to actually get there, get ready to play. I love big games like this and I think big games like this bring the best out of me.
You guys have gotten to know me pretty well as a basketball player, but I'm super laidback and a lot different off the court than I am on the court. I like to shop, eat and I don't really like doing much. If I'm away from the basketball floor, I like to recuperate, rest and hang out with my friends and teammates. I don't really like going out, running wild and stuff like that.
With practice, games, school and finals coming up soon, I haven't gotten much time to rest, so getting a break for the holidays will be nice. I hope everyone has a good Christmas and a great New Year's too.
UK held Boise State nearly 27 points below its season average in a 70-55 victory in Rupp Arena on Tuesday night. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
As soon as John Calipari brought his team together for its first practice, he saw the potential for Kentucky to terrorize opponents with its rare cross of size and athleticism.
With a 6-foot-6 point guard in Andrew Harrison and a fleet-footed 7-footer in Willie Cauley-Stein manning the five, he knew there would be times the Wildcats could switch everything.
But as enticing as the possibility was, the concept was completely foreign to the players who would be executing it.
"Once I got here I wasn't really familiar with it because I was just used to face-guarding the guy all the time," James Young said. "So it took us some time to get used to it but we're getting better at it."
That improvement was on display as No. 11/10 UK (8-2) stifled Boise State -- previously the nation's second-highest scoring team -- in a 70-55 victory in Rupp Arena. Playing primarily a four-guard lineup, the Broncos (8-1) shot just 22 of 69 (31.9 percent) from the field on Tuesday night, including 22.9 percent in the second half.
"You've got Julius Randle and Cauley-Stein switching," said Boise State's Anthony Drmic. "They can still defend the guards."
More often than not, Cauley-Stein's defense resulted in blocked shots or, at the very least, altered ones. With nine swats on Tuesday to go with six points and seven rebounds, the sophomore upped his season total to 43.
"He was able to switch out on guards and play them," Calipari said. "They couldn't score on him. That's a problem. When you're a guard, you drive right around them. The nine blocks, it's incredible what he did."
Cauley-Stein now has 28 blocks in his last four games to bring him to within one of Anthony Davis's record-setting 2012 pace through 10 games. As a freshman, Cauley-Stein didn't block his 43rd shot until February.
"I just know what I have to do now," said Cauley-Stein, who fielded as many questions about his newly bleached blonde hair as the win over Boise State. "Last year I was in between on what I was trying to do and this year just try to play around and block every shot I can or at least contest it."
As capable as Cauley-Stein may be of blocking shots and switching into smaller matchups, doing it is another matter. In fact, it's nearly impossible without the communication that was lacking as recently as Friday night in a loss to Baylor.
"There's a lot of things that happened from last game from the pick-and-rolls and stuff to just the communication, talking and breakdowns," said Randle, who had a double-double with 17 points and 11 rebounds. "We talked a lot better on the floor. We still had some breakdowns, but we got better."
According to the Cats, that has a lot to do with the little things that were so emphasized in practice on Sunday and Monday.
Coach Cal noticed in the Baylor defeat that his team was missing out on simple stuff like huddling before free-attempts and high-fiving teammates when they came to the bench, so they went to work.
"You notice we huddled," Calipari said. "How about this one? We touched each other. In the huddles we talked to one another. You may have noticed when a guy came out of the game, they all stood up, except one time they didn't. I jumped the bench."
Simple -- and maybe even silly -- as it may sound, those things matter.
"You touch and talk," Calipari said. "That's how you start becoming a team and coming together. Again, you can't be into your own thing. It's stuff that we have to teach."
It's not happening overnight or even in a pattern as steady as he may like, but the Cats are learning.
"It definitely is helping us," said Young, who had 21 points and a career-best nine rebounds. "Before we really didn't do it so I feel like we were kind of separated. But it's just bonding us more."
Nine days ago, the Cats were signing a similarly positive tune. They had just dispatched a solid Providence team on a neutral court and believed they were making significant strides. But last Friday, that progress was erased along with UK's nine-point lead with less than 13 minutes to go against Baylor.
Now, UK looks to put an end to that two-steps-forward, one-step-back dance with a trip to No. 18/21 North Carolina.
"I think we took a big step back from the Baylor game so we just back where we was at before that," Cauley-Stein said. "Now we just gotta make sure this next game that we keep it up and guard like that again and start from there and keep on building on little things until it becomes perfection."
As recently as a few weeks ago, John Calipari has called his own scheduling habits into practice.
He did it both before and after Kentucky lost to Michigan State, saying the second game of the season was too early to be playing a team the caliber of the Spartans.
One game into a slate of challenging December games, Calipari isn't about to do it again, not even after the Wildcats fell to Baylor on Friday night.
"This is why we did this," Calipari said. "We knew it was gonna be hard. We knew we'd lose games. We knew."
Fans may have thought otherwise, getting wrapped up in the hype surrounding a recruiting class billed by many as the best ever before any of its members even set foot on campus, but not Calipari.
"That's not what I was thinking," Calipari said. "I knew coming to this point, they were gonna have to find each other, or we're not going to be as good as everybody thinks or I think we should be. Until they find each other, until they understand they are absolutely locked arm-in-arm with each other."
When he made the schedule, Calipari's belief was that playing five potential NCAA Tournament teams -- Baylor, Boise State, North Carolina, Belmont and Louisville -- in as many games would force the Cats to realize just how much they need each other. He still feels the same way, but Calipari isn't relying solely on games to do his work for him.
Late in the Baylor game -- when No. 11/10 UK (7-2) gave up a nine-point lead with less than 13 minutes left -- Calipari noticed the Cats were having trouble heeding his instructions to huddle before a free-throw attempt. So on Sunday, he taught them how.
"Well, how could you not know how to huddle?" Calipari said. " 'Because I never played that way. If we got fouled, I was thinking my thoughts and he was thinking his thoughts and he's thinking his thoughts.' This is all new."
The same goes for something as basic as when a player comes to the bench.
"How 'bout this: Guy comes out of the game," Calipari said. "Everybody gets up and touches the guy. Isn't that like we all played? You touch the guy, and 'Hey, you're good.' We sit and, 'Come here and touch me.' There's just things that, to become a good team, they don't know yet."
When you consider the Cats need teaching on things so rudimentary, it's less surprising their development through nine games has come in fits and starts.
"Look, the way we do it is really hard," Calipari said. "The way they've always played has been really easy. Now, which way do you want to do it? The real hard way or the easy way and every chance you can revert back to see if it still works you do? It's just how it is coaching young teams."
That young team had an additional curveball thrown at it this weekend by delay-filled travel to and from Texas. On the way there, the team's flight was delayed by more than three hours. On the way home, the Cats didn't make it back to Lexington until nearly 11 p.m. ET on Saturday due to an ice storm.
"It felt like it was a week. It was honestly terrible," E.J. Floreal said. "Just being stuck there, it was so cold. I didn't even know it snowed in Dallas or anything. It was something for me. It was awful."
The following afternoon, the Cats took the practice floor in the Joe Craft Center to address some of the issues that plagued them against Baylor. In an intense two-hour-plus session, they focused on defense, rebounding and, afterward, free-throw shooting.
"We don't have enough time to teach these guys everything they don't know or we'd have seven-hour practices," Calipari said. "So we have to narrow into what's really important for us as a team. And we can't even really worry about the next game; we gotta worry about us."
That's not easy to do considering the strength of UK's next opponent. Boise State is a perfect 8-0 and is the nation's second-leading scoring team at 91.9 points per game heading into Tuesday's 9 p.m. ET matchup in Rupp Arena.
"They shoot 3s at a high clip," Calipari said. "They run the dribble-drive better than we ran it. They spread the court with four guards. They have four guards. So somebody is going to guard a guard that's not used to guarding a guard. That's just how it is."
The Broncos -- an NCAA Tournament team a season ago -- shoot 41.3 percent from 3-point range and are led in scoring by Anthony Drmic, who is averaging 20.4 points per game.
"They're pretty good, like Coach said, and we just gotta play hard," James Young said. "We just gotta out-tough them, muscle them a little bit. We have a height advantage, so if we use all our height I feel like we'll be good."
The Cats have never been short on confidence heading into games -- particularly on defense -- but that's changed at times this year when the opponent lands a haymaker.
"You're real confident until the first shot to your nose, your eye, your chin and your ear," Calipari said. "You're not so confident anymore."
As Calipari often says, confidence is built through repeated, sustained performance. The first step toward that is by taking it seriously.
"When you take great pride in your defense and your rebounding, you have confidence," Calipari said. "You know, 'We're fine. They can make a couple crazy shots. We're fine.' We haven't built that yet. And we're just trying to get them to understand: That's the only way you build it. They've never needed it before because, 'I'm just going to do my thing and I'll be fine.' Now you have to change. So these are all habits they have to change."