CRAWFORD | After another big game against a big name, UK's Caule - WDRB 41 Louisville News

CRAWFORD | After another big game against a big name, UK's Cauley-Stein should be in player of the year discussion

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LEXINGTON, Ky. (WDRB) — The Willie Cauley-Stein bandwagon is getting more crowded.

Saturday in Lexington, a new crop of national media jumped on with both feet, as well they should have after his performance in No. 1-ranked Kentucky's 84-70 win over No. 21 North Carolina.

You're going to ask for numbers, and I can give you numbers, but the numbers don't tell the whole story.

He had 15 points, 6 rebounds, 4 steals and two blocked shots in a team-high 28 minutes. Those are good. But what he is starting to deliver with more regularity are the “did you see that?” plays, and I'm not talking about dunks.

CRAWFORD | Quick takeaways from UK's 84-70 win over North Carolina

Against Columbia, it was catching up to a guard and then running around him to start pressing after a missed basket that caught my attention. Against North Carolina, it was a sequence in which he scored, reached out to make a steal on the inbounds pass that nobody would've reasonably expected him to make, then went to the free-throw line after being fouled on his ensuing drive.

These are the plays of a really athletic small forward, coming from a man who is 7-feet tall.

“I watched him in the Texas game and he was unbelievable,” North Carolina coach Roy Williams said. “It's hard to believe he was a wide receiver in high school. He affects the game in every way. He blocks shots, gets steals, gets follow-dunks, and gets dunks from guard penetration throwing it up around the rim -- he goes and gets it -- but he is a complete player. If you look at it, he affected the game drastically and only took nine shots.”

But Cauley-Stein filled perhaps a more important role with his team before Saturday's game against North Carolina. He was hit harder by the season-ending injury to Alex Poythress than probably anyone. The two came to UK in the same class, and as juniors have seen both highs and lows.

They're roommates, no less, and Cauley-Stein was not only able to help Poythress because of his own injury experience last season (he missed the regional finals and Final Four with an injury), but to help his teammates, as well.

“The thing about Alex is that he was there,” Cauley-Stein said. “We were in the same room so he's seen the same things that I was doing, the same things I was talking about, and the stuff I was doing to keep my mind off of the stuff. The biggest thing I'll be telling him is you can't get so hung up that you're out. You have to find some other way to be with the team. You have to find some other way to keep your name out there so you don't turn into a ghost. That's the biggest thing when I was hurt that I was trying to do. I was always trying to do something to keep my name out there so people didn't forget about you when it's all said and done.”

Show up to practice and interact with everyone. Wear a crazy shirt to the national semifinal. Anything to keep yourself up. That's the challenge in front of Poythress now. It's part of the reason Cauley-Stein made sure to go to Poythress every time he came out of the game to give him a fist-bump and make him feel more a part of things.

A year ago, Cauley-Stein was just a player. Today, he's a leader.

“There's a role that I have on the team,” he said. “Last year I didn't really need to have a role, just roam around and block shots. This year it's clear that I have a role that I have to uphold, and that type of leadership role is big to me, and just having that is really what's keeping me going.”

How far can he go? Cauley-Stein is rarely mentioned among national player of the year candidates, but he ought to be. His numbers aren't going to jump off the page, but there's not another 7-footer in the country who can do the things he does, or change games the way he can change them on either end.

“You're talking about a junior, you're talking about a guy that's played against some of the best players in the country, and he's a veteran,” Calipari said. “He's coming into his own, he's figuring out who he is as a person, as a player. He's doing it.”

For UK fans, the ascent has been fun to watch. Against North Carolina, some early makes from three-point range gave something UK hasn't played a great deal with this season — an early lead. The Wildcats were up 15 at the half, and hung around in the second only because All-American guard Marcus Paige heated up from three-point range.

The absence of Poythress pushed Calipari into a “platooning” decision, and he made it by letting freshman Trey Lyles run with both platoons to start the game, then working others like Tyler Ulis and Devin Booker into different rotations, along with Andrew and Aaron Harrison.

“What I've told Aaron and Andrew and Trey, whichever one of you is playing the best will continue to play,” Calipari said. “So you'll play with the second group. And that means with energy.  If you're out there going crazy and you got great energy, then you'll stay in. If you don't have great energy, jogging and standing up and you're out. You want it stay in? Great energy.”

Kentucky got about as good a shot as North Carolina can throw at this point in the season. But it wasn't enough for a third straight preseason Top 10 team to absorb a double-digit loss to Kentucky.

Asked if it felt good to beat such a storied program, Cauley-Stein shrugged.

“it's just, more of ourselves,” Cauley-Stein said. “We don't really come into a game thinking that we've got to beat these guys. We've got to come in and beat ourselves. That's what we battle every day. We're not playing a game to beat the other team. We're playing a game to beat us, do something that we didn't do right the last game, and do it this game. And I think for the most part we did that today.”

Cauley-Stein is a different player, a different person, really, from the one he was a season ago. He admits this. And he knows part of the reason why is the injury he sustained and had to overcome.

“I think I was driven more after being injured and know that, like, it really can be taken away from you at any time,” he said. “That really opened my eyes that I really do love this game and I'm trying to do something now. . . . To me I feel like I haven't even begun to peak. I'm still climbing.”

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