INDIANAPOLIS (WDRB) — Want to see a bunch of lost-looking sports reporters? Put them into a University of Kentucky locker room without Willie Cauley-Stein.
You're not supposed to have favorites, of course. But we do. Well, wait a minute. Let me back up. I do.
There are go-to guys in the locker room just as there are go-to players in games. Louisville has been fun to cover for three years because there are go-to guys at nearly every locker, from Gorgui Dieng to Luke Hancock to Russ Smith, you couldn't go wrong.
What's a go-to guy? He has personality. He doesn't give you the usual Sports Page jargon. He'll give you a little introspection, or shoot from the hip when you ask him a question.
John Wall? Go-to guy. I love any player who calls his coach by his first name, or will say, as Wall said, that sometimes you have to let what the coach says roll off your back. He was just being real. DeMarcus Cousins? Go-to guy. Any player who will differentiate between "stressed-out Cal" and "chill Cal" is a keeper.
A good rule for you young reporters — if you walk into a locker room and see a guy wearing non-prescription eyeglasses just to look different, he's probably a go-to guy. If, like Terrence Jones, he has a Hello Kitty backpack in his locker — go-to guy.
Go-to-guys are not always the best players. Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist were some of the best college players I've ever covered. But they were pros — in terms of how they carried themselves — from the day they stepped onto campus. Pros always say the right thing. Pros rarely say stupid things. They rarely made headlines with their comments, even if we had to turn them into headlines anyway.
Willie Cauley-Stein is a go-to guy. So when he went down with an ankle injury it wasn't just for selfish reasons that I felt bad for him. Nobody was providing specifics on Saturday. There were whispers of a Achilles' injury, or a potential fracture. No official status was given.
His absence, however, already was being felt. Cauley-Stein is from Kansas, and just a day earlier had given one of the most insightful quotes on the fans of Kentucky and Louisville that I'd ever heard a player give.
In essence, he said, they're all the same.
"Honestly, if you are not from here, you really don't understand the whole thing about Louisville and Kentucky," he said. "To get a perspective from a Louisville fan and then a Kentucky fan is just hilarious. Basically, they say the same thing, just opposite sides of the spectrum. . . . If you are not from Kentucky and you don't understand it. It's that simple. I have been here two years and I still don't understand the rivalry. It's just fun to ask a Kentucky fan about the rivalry and then a U of L fan about the rivalry and they say the same type of trash talk about each other. It's the same thing, just from a different side. It's funny because it is so similar. They are more alike than what they think. That's why it is funny."
Cauley-Stein did the hard interviews. After losses. When he played well, and sometimes when he didn't. I remember earlier this season he went through a slump, and everybody was worried about his slump, and him dying his hair blonde, and then changing it back, and he was asked about his slump, and he gave a great answer.
"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."
Especially at Kentucky, where there is so much media clamoring for time with the players, and everything is done in group settings, more or less, it's hard to get any kind of feel for what it's really like. When you see those flashes, you appreciate it.
And on this particular UK team, nobody tends to provide those windows on the program like Cauley-Stein.
That doesn't mean his value is as a commentator only. The guy can play. He's an NBA lottery talent. A reporter tried to get Louisville's Rick Pitino to compare Cauley-Stein's injury to Kevin Ware's after the game Friday night, but the coach was in no mood for comparison. In the course of his answer he said he didn't know if Cauley-Stein was a difference-maker.
Cauley-Stein is absolutely a difference maker. There's no player in college basketball — and precious few in the NBA — of his size who can come out on the perimeter to guard point guards.
That ability would have been a major asset if the Wildcats had been able to use Cauley-Stein against Michigan.
Calipari said he didn't expect to have Cauley-Stein. He wasn't present at Saturday's media availability. Several of his teammates said they thought he had to see a doctor.
"I will tell you, he's still in a boot," Calipari said. "He's doubtful. He's acting like he thinks he can do something, and I would be stunned if he played in this game. But he's saying that he may want to give it a try. But he hasn't been out of that boot. So he went down and hit it pretty good."
As someone with a broken left ankle myself, as I sit here writing a story with my ankle propped up on some pillows, I feel for Cauley-Stein.
Here's hoping he makes a speedy return. I'd say there's more than one sportswriter out there pulling for him.