LEXINGTON, Ky. (WDRB) — Everybody was talking about Willie Cauley-Stein's slump. He heard about it on Twitter.
It wasn't like last season, when he felt the wrath of Twitter followers after UK losses in a season that was slipping away. This time, he felt little but support flowing from fans. And suggestions. Dye your hair back blonde they told him. Put your headband back on, for goodness sake.
Only in Kentucky. Only at Kentucky. Three subpar games and you're part of group therapy. And there are 24,000 in the group. He talked about it on a snowy Saturday afternoon after bouncing back for eight points, eight rebounds, six blocked shots and six steals in a 79-54 win over Georgia that was one of the Wildcats' most complete efforts of the season.
His stat line in those four categories for the prior three games combined had been three points, 10 rebounds, two blocks, two steals.
"I wasn't really thinking it was a slump until I was, like, three games in and everybody was, ‘He's in a slump,'" Cauley-Stein said. "Then I thought, ‘Maybe I am in a slump.' But I don't even know."
It's a problem at UK more than elsewhere. Something small can become something big in a heartbeat. Prophecies self-fulfill. When UK coach John Calipari talks about chatter, that's part of the problem. People have bad games. But the relentless nature of the UK experience picks at those scabs (excuse the imagery) until they can become something more, unless a player is tough.
Georgia coach Mark Fox didn't think much of the notion that Cauley-Stein had been slumping.
"He grew up 48 miles or 50 miles from me, where I did," Fox said. "I don't think he's slumping. I mean they've got a lot of guys making plays. You're not going to get as many opportunities when you have a balanced team like they do. I mean, he's a terrific player and I don't think he was slumping, I think it just comes with the territory."
So it goes with Kentucky. They're good but not yet dominant. Each game a small step, but the head coach not yet satisfied and the fan base waiting to be convinced. What was true of Cauley-Stein during his "slump" is true of the team at times, too. It could look better. But it's also improving in the way teams do — even if the expectation is that it should be no ordinary team.
If this group of Wildcats needs anything, it's patience. Calipari's is being tested, but he also thinks it could be rewarded.
"We're still not there. We got better, more energy off the ball, didn't stop the ball as much, but we're still a ways away," he said. "We still do stuff like — most of it is mental discipline now. That's the next level of the process. Get the players right, playing hard, thinking right, understanding their role and how they have to play for us to win. Okay, now you've got to get your team right. Now we've got to be more like a team, and that means don't hold the ball. That means play with energy off the ball. On the ball, that's fine, but what about off the ball? That's what a team does. And then the next level is the discipline, defensive and offensive discipline. That one is going to be a little longer for us to crack, but we're getting better."
Saturday's win against a depleted Georgia team doesn't show much. But it did represent something. UK didn't play around with this opponent. From the 10-minute mark left in the game, the Wildcats put on the clamps and ran away. It was their biggest blowout in nearly two months, and by far their most complete effort in Southeastern Conference play, even if Georgia was missing its No. 2 scorer in shooting guard Kenny Gaines and his backup, freshman guard, Juwan Parker. At times the Bulldogs were out there with four frontcourt players.
Still, UK did what it needed to do. And for one of the few times this season, every player in the game looked to be filling his particular role. Aaron Harrison had 15 points. Julius Randle and 14 points and nine rebounds. Alex Poythress continued his solid play off the bench with 11 points and five rebounds. James Young had 13 points and made three three-pointers. The Wildcats blocked 11 shots. Statistically, the only two areas that have shown up in all four losses are having the same number of bench points or fewer and shooting worse than 50 percent. Plenty of teams show those same categories.
"Teams are way ahead of us," Calipari said. "They're three years with the same unit. They're going to be way ahead. But I'm pleased with our team. I like this team. Just will we be disciplined enough to be special? It's not about do you have enough bodies. It's not about well, they're really that skilled. Well, we're okay. Will we become the team and have the discipline it takes to really make a run to do something unique and special? We'll see.
"This stuff is a process," Calipari said before heading out for his radio show, giving the team 24 hours off before resuming practice for a Tuesday night ESPN road game at LSU. "This was a good game for us. We're learning. They're trying."