John Clay: UK's Cauley-Stein, block party of one

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistDecember 1, 2013 

BROOKLYN, N.Y. — If everything had worked according to plan, if it had left Lexington a day earlier, the Kentucky basketball team was scheduled to ring the bell on the New York Stock Exchange on Friday morning.

It didn't work out. No matter. The stock of Willie Cauley-Stein and Kentucky's defense as a whole rose like a rocket on Sunday night.

Thanks to its best overall defensive effort of the young season, led by Cauley-Stein's shot-blocking ability, John Calipari's team rolled to a 79-65 win over Providence before a pro-Big Blue crowd of 8,086 at the Barclays Center.

On the offensive end, Cauley-Stein scored 15 points, hitting seven of eight shots.

But it was on the defensive end where Cauley-Stein did shine. Coincidentally, on the same night former Cat shot-blocking star Anthony Davis broke his hand, Cauley-Stein swatted a career-high nine shots.

That ranked second in school history behind Nerlens Noel's 10 in a game last year. Cauley-Stein tied Andre Riddick and Sam Bowie.

Little wonder that Providence managed to sink 10 of 19 from three-point land, but just nine of 42 shots from inside the arc. Kentucky shot 64.3 percent. The Friars shot 31.1 percent.

Cauley-Stein wasn't the only Cat who played good defense. With Andrew Harrison battling foul trouble, Calipari turned to Dominique Hawkins, who all but shut out Providence sharpshooter Bryce Cotton in the second half.

The Big East's leading scorer last season went from the 16:15 mark of the second half to the 3:49 mark without a point.

Hawkins had much to do with that, and you could make a case that the former Madison Central star has been the Cats' most pleasant surprise to this point.

But back to the blocks.

Through eight games last year, Noel had 25 blocks. Through eight games of his freshman season, Davis had 36 blocks. Through eight games this season, Cauley-Stein has 31 blocked shots.

"Their length is their strength," Providence Coach Ed Cooley said.

There were plenty of NBA scouts on hand to see that length, though surely they were there to get another first-hand look at Julius Randle — his double-double streak hit the brakes at seven — and the Harrison twins, but they had to come away impressed with Cauley-Stein's upside.

In one memorable sequence, the Kansan blocked a pair of Providence shots at one end, hustled to the other end, and took a pass and jammed one home.

To meet their great expectations, the Cats have to play great defense. Offense gets the fans. Defense gets the rings.

The 2012 team, hangers of UK's eighth national title banner, had Marquis Teague playing tough defense on the point, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist playing lockdown on the opponent's best scorer and Davis erasing mistakes underneath.

This team's not there yet by any means, but it did show signs on Sunday.

UK's ball pressure, a weakness to this point, picked up in the second half. But then it's easier to put pressure on the ball away from the basket when you know you have someone like Cauley-Stein under the basket.

Providence shot just 28.6 percent in the second half. After making six of eight triples in the first half, Cooley's club missed seven of its 11 three-point shots in the second half.

"I thought our shot selection in the second half was very poor," Cooley said.

Surely, Kentucky's improved defense was part of that.

"When those kids mature, they're going to be scary," Cooley said. "Very, very scary."

Right now, trying to get a shot over Willie Cauley-Stein, that is scary indeed.

John Clay: (859) 231-3226. Email: jclay@herald-leader.com. Twitter: @johnclayiv. Blog: johnclay.bloginky.com.

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