CRAWFORD | Texas-sized game shows UK's Cauley-Stein is America's - WDRB 41 Louisville News

CRAWFORD | Texas-sized game shows UK's Cauley-Stein is America's matchup problem

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) — This was, in the words of Texas coach Rick Barnes, “a big boy game.”

Cawood's Court in Rupp Arena became the land of the giants Friday night. If playing Kentucky is, as Wildcats' coach John Calipari always says, everyone's Super Bowl, then this one was XXXL.

I'd like to know the average shoe size in this game. I'm sure Ken Pomeroy charts that somewhere. If these teams stood in a straight line with their arms outstretched, they'd reach all the way to Versailles. It's a fact.

Maybe that's Texas-sized embellishment. But it's not embellishment to say that this game between No. 6 Texas and No. 1 Kentucky wasn't always pretty. The teams combined for 51 fouls. Their sizable rim-protectors meant neither team shot 40 percent, and Texas was the fifth opponent UK has held below 30. They should give every player who finished a basket at the rim in this game a helmet sticker. Sometimes you couldn't see the forest for the Sequoias.

But amid all this tall timber one player stood the tallest. Willie Cauley-Stein, a junior who has gone from high-school project (relatively speaking) to projected lottery pick, would've piled up a helmet full of Wildcat paw prints. With 30 NBA scouts crammed into any available seat at Rupp Arena, Cauley-Stein left an indelible impression with 21 points, 12 rebounds, five steals and three blocks in 33 minutes played, the most played by a Wildcat in any game this season.

“I don't know if I've ever coached in a game where the size and the strength and the physicality was what it was,” Texas coach Rick Barnes said afterward. “Baskets were really hard to come by. . . . Willie Cauley-Stein was really terrific, he was really the difference in the game. . . . He affected the game every way you can affect it.”

I'm not going to talk about “platoon” strategy because in the end, it doesn't really matter. This is about winning games and not some kind of artificial playing-time construct.

Calipari did an important thing in this one. He told sophomore Marcus Lee, who had been rotating in for Cauley-Stein, that the big man was going to be on the court more.

“I said, Marcus, you're his backup today,” Calipari told reporters after the game. “When he wants to come out you can come in. If he doesn't want to come out, you are not going to play a whole lot today. He's too good. And Willie said, hey, just be ready for me, but I'm going to try to go blow this out, and that's what he did.”

Anybody have a problem with that? I didn't think so.

This game looked just about the way you'd expect a game between two of the top three defensive teams in the nation to look.

At one point, UK held Texas — the No. 6-ranked team in the nation, remember — to only two field goals in 16 minutes. That was the decisive stretch, the final 7 1/2 minutes of the first half and the first 9 or so of the second when UK made its big move. The Wildcats built a 16-point lead with 11:20 to play in the game, behind an 18-2 run to start the half, and it looked like this one would finish the way every other UK game has this season.

But credit Texas for stabilizing itself, clawing back within single digits. With just over a minute to play, the Longhorns took a three-pointer that would've cut their deficit to three. Instead, the shot bounced off, and UK went on to win by a dozen.

Texas did some impressive things. It outrebounded UK 42-31. The Wildcats were rebounding 48 percent of their own missed shots coming into the game. On Friday night, they rebounded just 34 percent of their misses (12 out of 35).

UK couldn't buy a three-pointer, until Andrew Harrison hit one in the closing minutes. For the game, UK's four guards — the Harrison twins, Tyler Ulis and Devin Booker, went just 4-for-27.

Calipari ran through those stats after the game and said, “What?  How in the world did we? What just happened?”

What happened is that UK — quibble with statistics and efficiency numbers all you want — is the best defensive team in the nation. Texas hung with the Wildcats, and playing without their leading scorer (and starting point guard), they've got a lot to be optimistic about.

But on a night when it had little to no offense, the Wildcats won with more stifling defense, and the play of Cauley-Stein and Dakari Johnson, who delivered his usual 11 points and six rebounds.

Texas did everything it wanted — except score. It limited UK's offensive rebounds. It held the Wildcats to just six fast-break points. It kept UK under 40 percent from the field. It gave up only one three-pointer.

And still lost by 12.

Now, with 1:37 left, and UK leading by five, in a timeout Calipari was drawing up a play. And he was drawing it up for Cauley-Stein. The 7-footer has been around three years. He was in Lexington for an NIT season. He was injured during last season's national championship game. He's been through a great deal. 

“What I like is Willie wanted to make the play,” Calipari said. “See, guys that make those clutch or game-winners are not afraid to miss the game-winner.”

The ball went to Cauley-Stein, he was fouled, and made one of two free-throws (he was 9 of 12 in the game) to boost the lead to six. He scored on UK's next trip on a lob slam, and then hit two more free throws with 13 seconds left.

Think about this guy. A year ago, I'm not kidding, the main thing people were talking about with him was that he had dyed his hair blonde.

Last night, I don't know how anybody left the gym thinking the kid isn't a lottery pick.

“He's older, more mature,” Calipari said. “The biggest thing I'm working on him with our people, and Kenny (Payne) is, he's got to come to wide bases when he comes to a stop. When his feet are really close, he's just got no balance and he just flops around. When he comes to that wide base, he's seven-foot and he just jumps over the guy. He reaches up, literally he's shooting the ball and he's above the square (on the backboard) shooting down. The other thing is I like the fact that he made free throws today. I liked the fact that he's not afraid to shoot the ball in the middle.”

Here's one reason Cauley-Stein is important. As much as UK has come to symbolize the one-and-done player over the past several seasons, he's proof that you can come back to school and get better, develop more, and work on your game. Even with his injury, Cauley-Stein was probably going to go in the draft lottery last season, or close to it.

“You know, that is one of the biggest reasons that I came back is to just develop myself more as a basketball player,” he said. “I feel like I am just starting to do that. It's only December. I still have three months left.”

He's handling the ball better. He's getting into passing lanes for steals. He's blocking shots, rebounding, scoring, even guarding smaller players on the perimeter. 

Calipari still had two platoons against Texas. They just each had the same leader.

There may be teams in America, and Texas showed it can be one of them, that can play with and perhaps eventually beat Kentucky. But nobody has a player of Cauley-Stein's size who can do what he does. He's America's matchup problem.

Nobody's talking about his hair anymore. But plenty of coaches will be pulling theirs out trying to figure out how to deal with him between now and March Madness.

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