ANOTHER CHALLENGE AWAITS RANDOLPH

Zach Randolph is a tug-of-war. You want him to be confident, but not cocky. You want to get him serious, without losing his contagious joy. You want him to grow up — just not too fast.

In other words, Zach Randolph is a teenager — 19, to be exact — and like other teenagers, he can delight and infuriate the adults around him (ask Tom Izzo).

And like other teenagers, he has been in trouble but says he’ll never do it again.

Today, Zach the teenager is under the hottest lights in college basketball, the Final Four, and how he handles himself will tell a lot about the maturity of Michigan State’s 6-foot-9 man-child with the skinny legs and the incredible shooting touch.

“Ain’t no trick to turning things around,” Randolph said this week, speaking of his past with a confidence that belies his youth. “Other kids get in trouble, too.

“Besides, that stuff was so long ago nobody even remembers it.”

Well, that’s where he’s wrong. He’ll find out the harsh way, this afternoon, when the nation’s media descend on him and his Michigan State teammates.

Out-of-town reporters look for angles. And, unlike some hometown scribes, they have no reason to be nice. The “angle” on Randolph isn’t talked about much around here, but elsewhere, it’s all but obvious: Two years ago, Randolph was serving time in an Indiana detention center after pleading guilty to two counts of receiving stolen guns.

A year ago, he scored too low on his SATs to play college hoops.

The question they will ask the freshman today is this: Do you think you’ve put your troubles behind you? How? When?

And when Randolph is finished answering, a few minutes later, someone will ask him again.

A risk worth taking

Here is how Randolph answered those questions to me earlier this week.

“I was young when I got in trouble. I was running with some tough guys, the wrong crowd, you could say. The things I did were kind of expected. I was trying to act too grown up.

“A lot of colleges ran the opposite direction once that stuff happened. Then after I got back to basketball, they all came running back. But I knew the difference.

“That’s what was good about Michigan State. They stuck by me the whole time. They kept saying, ‘We believe in you.’ “

That wasn’t easy to do. Randolph was labeled a risky recruit, and Izzo’s program, building toward a national championship, was priding itself on a clean operation, doing things the right way, staying away from risks that could sink you, like a few the Michigan Wolverines had taken just down the road.

But Randolph the basketball player is hard to resist. For a big man, he has the touch of a silk seamstress. His inside play was the best in the country in his senior season of high school. His rear end is a major weapon, his sense of the rim is unconsciousness. “If you could ever get him to learn defense,” the thinking went, “he’d be a monster . . .”

So MSU stuck. And Randolph stuck. And once the Spartans signed him, they had to apply for a special exemption from the SAT requirements, because he’d scored 20 points lower than the minimum required. They were criticized for that.

And when the exemption was granted, they were criticized for that.

And when Randolph started playing and started scoring, he was cheered like a hero.

Tug-of-war.

A freshman’s highs and lows

So far this season, Randolph has played up and down, about what you’d expect from a guy with a longshoreman’s torso, a runner’s legs and a face out of the Cosby kids.

His “up” games have been very up — like the 27-point effort against Florida, a game which had people wondering whether Randolph would go pro after this season.

And his “down” games have been plenty down — like his two points in 17 minutes against Ohio State, which had some people wondering whether he’d even make MSU’s starting lineup.

But Randolph — who sports one tattoo that says “Z-Bo” and another with a ball coming from a flaming hoop — is nothing if not resilient. He bounces back.

So last weekend, in the regional final, he played exceptionally well, grabbing 14 rebounds against Temple, including three critical boards in the final two minutes. That’s good. This is no time for shrinking violets. MSU will need Randolph’s big game against Arizona on Saturday if it wants to repeat.

First, he’ll get through the news conferences. Randolph, who was raised by his mother and stepfather, is smarter than you think, and maybe not as smart as he thinks. But then, he’s in college, and college is what learning is all about, right?

“What was the single biggest lesson your stepfather taught you?” I asked him.

“Don’t argue with your Mom.”

“And what was the single biggest lesson your Mother taught you?”

“Don’t argue with your sisters.”

The tug continues.

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or albom@freepress.com. Catch “Albom in the Afternoon” 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760) and simulcast on MSNBC 3-5 p.m.

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