UK basketball

UK basketball player profile: Willie Cauley-Stein grounded by his small-town roots

Small-town big man expected to contribute

jtipton@herald-leader.comOctober 2, 2012 

  • Willie Cauley-Stein

    Height, weight: 7-0, 244

    Position: Forward

    Class: Freshman

    Hometown: Olathe, Kan.

    High school: Northwest

  • Meet the Cats

    This is the second in a series of stories on each of the 12 UK men's basketball players leading up to Big Blue Madness on Oct. 12.

    Coming Wednesday: Archie Goodwin

Bespectacled Willie Cauley-Stein approached ...

Whoa!

Bespectacled?

"Yeah," Cauley-Stein said when asked about the black-framed glasses he wore. "I'm actually kind of blind in my left eye. ...

"I got them when I was younger, but I never wore them. I just started wearing them every day last year."

Cauley-Stein (he added the "Stein" in the last year in honor of his grandparents, Val and Norma Stein) plans to wear contact lenses when he plays for Kentucky this season. That will be a new experience for the 7-foot freshman.

In the past, "I was just playing blurry," he said.

Left unsaid was whether blurry vision contributed to Cauley-Stein's status as a big man with promise rather than a star on the fast track to the NBA. He acknowledged that he wondered during the recruiting process whether he was good enough to play for Kentucky. He attributed the doubts to his tiny hometown: Spearville, Kan. (population 790).

"Coming from a small town, you don't look at yourself as better than everybody else," he said. "You don't pay attention to all the hype. So I didn't really look at myself as good, I guess you could say."

That began to change when a summer game against a highly-regarded prospect led Cauley-Stein's AAU coach to issue a challenge.

"I just remember my coach saying, ... 'He's coming at your head,'" Cauley-Stein said. "And something clicked. I said, 'Nah, nah. That's not going to happen.'"

Maybe seeing a need to boost Cauley-Stein's self-esteem prompted UK Coach John Calipari to gush about him often this pre-season. When asked to name the (most pleasant) surprise of summer workouts, Calipari quickly named Cauley-Stein.

The UK coach never saw Cauley-Stein play basketball in high school. Calipari recalled that he arrived at Northwest High School in Olathe, Kan., and saw Cauley-Stein carrying a tennis racket.

"I told him when I recruited him, 'You have no idea how good you can be,'" Calipari said.

Through the summer workouts, Cauley-Stein forged ahead of the more ballyhooed Nerlens Noel, who belatedly arrived at UK because he had to first stay at Tilton Academy in New Hampshire to gain academic eligibility.

Barring a huge surprise, Noel will move ahead of Cauley-Stein, if he hasn't already. But Cauley-Stein appears to be seen as a contributor this coming season. Calipari made the freshman's job sound simple.

"Outrun everybody down the floor on both ends," Calipari said before adding, "He finishes first in all the runs."

Cauley-Stein spoke of the improvement that can come with playing one sport all year. In high school, he also played football and dabbled with tennis. Whether that means he's a so-called "project" player did not concern the freshman.

"I didn't really even pay attention to it," he said of the label. "I just came to go to school."

Jerry Tipton: (859) 231-3227. Twitter: @JerryTipton. Blog: ukbasketball.bloginky.com.

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