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Mike Lopresti | | April 6, 2014

Home for the Final Four

Julius Randle has a national-best 24 double-doubles this season. Julius Randle has a national-best 24 double-doubles this season.

PLANO, Texas -- They couldn’t be more excited about the Final Four at Julius Randle’s high school. That includes the 6-foot sophomore who once had to guard him every practice.

Know this. Before Randle was a Kentucky Wildcat, he was a Prestonwood Christian Academy Lion, body and soul. He has come home to chase a national championship, and his old teammates still feel connected.

“I just look up to him as a big brother, saying I played with him,” D.J. McGee was saying. “He taught me a lot. He inspired me.”

Randle also occasionally mashed him. They were practice foils, the future Kentucky star, and the eager underclassmen whose mission was to annoy him.

“The coach asked who wanted to guard him, and everybody said they didn’t want to, so I said I would,” McGee said. “I really wasn’t scared of him that much. I would talk to him and say, 'You’re not that good.’ But I knew he was good.”

And the death-defying times he tried to take a charge?

“It didn’t go too well. I got dunked on all the time. Then he’d just look at me with a mean face.”

They had a good laugh at that, sitting in the athletic office Wednesday, McGee, Shane Missimo and Evan Peters -- all Prestonwood starters this season, and former Randle teammates. Plus head coach Chris Lovell and athletic director Chris Cunningham.

Prestonwood is atwitter, to have its famous son just down the road in AT&T Stadium. “It almost has a feeling around here that we’re about to play in the Final Four,” Cunningham said.

“Everyone tweets, 'I knew Julius.’ Or, 'Hey, Julius said hi to me one time,' ” Missimo said.

In the head of school’s office is a giant poster for Randle -- “We Are Proud of Julius Randle. Welcome Home’’ -- and it comes with messages from hundreds of staff and students, kindergarten to seniors.

“Heard your name on Saturday Night Live.”

“I took a charge on you once.”

“Thanks for screwing up my bracket.”

When 700 Prestonwood students gathered for the usual Thursday chapel service, they sent a social media shoutout to Randle. This time a year ago, he was sitting in that chapel as a student.

“He left a legacy here we’ll never be able to replace,” Lovell said. “He put our program on the map.

“I tell people all the time; he is a so much better person than he is a basketball player.”

The assembled players all understand what this week means, and the remarkable passage it represents. Such a dizzying road to the big stage from this sprawling campus north of Dallas, with its own lake and a fieldhouse with 600 seats. A long way from Rupp Arena.

Missimo: “It’s almost awe-inspiring, just to think a year ago, I was on the same floor with him, throwing him alley-oops and winning the state championship.”

From Peters: “To see him go on, it gives us extra motivation to keep doing what we’re going. He just proved, being around us all day, that working hard will get you where you want to go.”

But about those practices.

“Luckily, I wasn’t a bigger guy so I didn’t have to do much,” Missimo said. “But every time he’d be dribbling down the lane, I knew to get out of the way. I didn’t get dunked on once all season.”

And the fastest way to provoke Randle rage?

“Foul him,” Peters said.

“Or steal it from him,” Missimo said. “That’d make him mad and he’d just got to the other end and dunk on you.”

McGee raising Randle’s body temperature was not uncommon.

"All the time,” McGee said. “Every practice pretty much. I’d get angry, too. We’d go at it.”

Prestonwood won three private school state championships with Randle. It also won this season without him. A big deal, to those who did it.

“Last year, whenever I’d talk to my friends, it was always like, 'You need to put Thanks Julius on that trophy,” Missimo said. “But the next year it was awesome to be able to win it without him. Love Julius, but we can all say we had a part, and it wasn’t just one player.”

Randle was sending constant moral support from Lexington, Ky. Lovell mentioned how they were “lots of tweets and texts going everywhere between us and him.”

Said Peters, “I think he made us all feel special; he cared about our championship and it still matters to him. Later in life, we’ll always remember the team we had in high school, no matter what we do. Not all of us are going to be a professional basketball player, but all of us are family.”

The adults think so, too. Cunningham is also the state champion football coach. “My wife says, 'I’ve never seen you watch so much college basketball.' "

Listed at 6-9, 250, Randall has the looks of a star football player in a state that worships such a person. But he never played the game. “It wasn’t from a lack of being recruited by me,” Cunningham said. “Every spring.”

His favorite memory of Randle is watching him work so hard to rehab an injury so he could play in the state tournament last spring, when many voices were suggesting he close it down and wait for college.

“That’s who Julius is,” he said. “That’s the real deal.”

Lovell recalls a practice when Randle was a sophomore and getting pushed around by a bigger teammate. Lovell suggested to Randle he just make a move and dunk over him. Learn to use the speed and athleticism God bestowed.

Next possession, Randle spun and dunked. The legend was on its way.

Or maybe it had already begun. When Randle was in the eighth grade, Prestonwood was destroying other eighth-grade teams so badly, Cunningham had to find junior varsity teams to play.

Come Saturday, Lovell will be in AT&T Stadium with his wife. Missimo said he is trying to find a ticket, and also, “I need to get one of those Julius jerseys.”

By the way, Randle’s old No. 30 went unworn at Prestonwood this season. “Nobody wanted that,” Lovell said.

Prestonwood en masse will be watching Saturday. They’ll all be Kentucky fans with the visiting blue horde, right?

“No,” Missimo corrected. “Just Julius fans.”

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