John Clay: Kentucky's Cauley-Stein proving value of sticking around

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistDecember 3, 2013 

To the outside world, the 2012 Kentucky basketball champions were all about the one-and-dones, about Marquis Teague and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and the March Madness monster that was Anthony Davis.

Insiders knew better, of course. To be sure, those frighteningly talented one-and-doners contributed mightily to the hoisting of that eighth title banner. And yet the Cats would not have cut down the nets that New Orleans night were it not for the most valuable holdovers.

It was the wise old soul that was senior Darius Miller, plus talented sophomores Terrence Jones and Doron Lamb, who debriefed the rookies on all things John Calipari and all things Cats.

They knew what it was like to hop the treadmill for a practice mistake. They knew to tell the youngsters when it was OK to ignore the "old man" with the whistle and when it was time to take off the headphones and pay attention. They knew what it felt like to be under the collegiate gun.

That recent history prompted an all-important question about these 2013-14 Cats.

Was Calipari's corralling the world's greatest recruiting class all that was needed to push Kentucky to another title? Or did the newbies need the guiding hands of experience on the roster, even if it was just a year of experience?

"We had three really good veterans that were the heart of the (2012) team," said Calipari on Sunday night after his team knocked off Providence 79-65 at the Barclays Center. "This is a freshman team."

Ironically, the player most responsible for the win that night was not a freshman. It was sophomore Willie Cauley-Stein, the 7-footer who flirted with a triple-double before finishing with 15 points, eight rebounds and nine blocked shots.

"I think I'm just more aware," Cauley-Stein said when asked how he had suddenly turned into a sultan of swat. "Like before, in the past, I was hesitant on going. Now I'm just going."

That is called putting institutional knowledge to good use.

A year ago, the former high school football wide receiver operated mainly in the shadow of the more heralded Nerlens Noel, or at least until Noel messed up a knee and Kentucky's season when he crashed into a cameraman underneath the basket at Florida's O'Connell Center.

That shoved Cauley-Stein into the spotlight, possibly before the Olathe, Kansan was fully ready.

Noel was a top-five recruit, after all, his college announcement deemed important enough to be broadcast from inside an ESPN studio. Cauley-Stein was ranked 40th overall and ninth at his position by Rivals.com and even those placements were based more on potential than polish.

With Noel out, Cauley-Stein did his best down the stretch. He contributed a couple of double-doubles, but those were in losing causes at Arkansas and Georgia. In the embarrassing first-round NIT loss at Robert Morris, Cauley-Stein scored nine points, but grabbed just four rebounds and blocked just one shot.

But then maybe we should have known Cauley-Stein would need time to adjust to his surroundings.

Over the past two years, he is the most quirky and thoughtful of Cats, with his stylish eyewear — not the DeMarcus Cousins model fashion frames — his Walking Dead zombie fascination and the courage to admit he actually enjoyed attending class.

Sunday night, Cauley-Stein wore a baseball cap with the word "TRILL" above the bill to the post-game podium. And if the Urban Dictionary definition is correct, stating that trill is "an adjective used in hip-hop culture to describe someone who is considered to be well-respected," then the hat certainly fit.

When Cauley-Stein said Sunday the Cats were "five guys talking and clapping and flying around," someone asked if those things happened last year.

"Very rarely," said the sophomore.

He should know. He was there.

NEXT GAME

Kentucky vs. Baylor

When: 10 p.m. Friday

What: Big 12/SEC Challenge

Where: AT&T Stadium, Arlington, Texas

TV: ESPN

Radio: WLAP-AM 630 and WBUL-FM 98.1

Records: Baylor 7-1; Kentucky 7-1

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

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