Kentucky's Cauley-Stein showing he's ready to bounce back

jtipton@herald-leader.comJanuary 24, 2014 

  • Cauley-Stein falling off the pace

    Kentucky sophomore Willie Cauley-Stein was keeping pace with previous high-volume UK shot-blockers Anthony Davis and Nerlens Noel early this season. Cauley-Stein's recent slump has left him with a lot of ground to make up. Davis broke the Southeastern Conference and UK records for blocked shots in a season with 186 during the Wildcats' national title campaign of 2011-12. Freshman big man Nerlens Noel tried to make a run at Davis' mark before being injured last season.

  • Willie Cauley-Stein (2013-14)

    UNC Asheville 4

    Northern Kentucky 0

    Michigan State 2

    Robert Morris 4

    Texas-Arlington 1

    Cleveland State 4

    Eastern Michigan 7

    Providence 9

    Baylor 3

    Boise State 9

    North Carolina 5

    Belmont 2

    Louisville 3

    Mississippi State 2

    Vanderbilt 1

    Arkansas 1

    Tennessee 1

    Texas A&M 0

    Total 58

    Nerlens Noel (2012-13)

    Maryland 3

    Duke 3

    Lafayette 1

    Morehead State 6

    LIU-Brooklyn 5

    Notre Dame 1

    Baylor 1

    Samford 5

    Portland 7

    Lipscomb 7

    Marshall 2

    Louisville 2

    Eastern Michigan 3

    Vanderbilt 3

    Texas A&M 7

    Tennessee 6

    Auburn 7

    Alabama 8

    Total 77

    Anthony Davis (2011-12)

    Marist 5

    Kansas 7

    Penn State 3

    Old Dominion 3

    Radford 4

    Portland 4

    St. John's 8

    North Carolina 2

    Indiana 3

    Chattanooga 5

    Samford 5

    Loyola (Md.) 3

    Lamar 6

    Louisville 6

    Ark.-Little Rock 3

    South Carolina 7

    Auburn 4

    Tennessee 4

    Total 82

No doubt, Kentucky would like to again see Willie Cauley-Stein as the fully hyphenated big man whose flirtations with triple-doubles only a few weeks ago evoked thoughts of Anthony Davis and Nerlens Noel. Apparently, that Willie Cauley-Stein participated in UK's practice Thursday.

"He looks like the old Willie again," teammate Jarrod Polson said Friday. "That's definitely a good sign for us. ... I think he's back and he has a good mindset right now."

After Thursday's practice, UK Coach John Calipari tweeted how "unbelievable" Cauley-Stein had looked. Calipari confirmed his tweet when meeting with media types Friday.

"He was outstanding yesterday," Calipari said of Cauley-Stein.

Spoiler alert: Cauley-Stein banged his head on the court at the end of practice, Calipari said. But the UK coach added, "He should be fine" for UK's game against Georgia on Saturday.

Calipari described a Cauley-Stein who took the initiative rather than reacted to the action.

"It was good to see him back to instead of avoiding everything, creating and doing stuff we've all seen him do," the UK coach said.

Of course, Kentucky basketball lore includes many examples of coaches touting the wondrous things players did in practice, then sounding puzzled no such magic reappeared in games. Usually, the disconnect involved supposedly shooting the lights out in practice, then shooting as if the lights were out.

So Kentucky's game against Georgia serves as the latest chance to see how well practice translates.

Calipari suggested Cauley-Stein needed a mental adjustment or confidence boost.

"You go down that road and you start thinking the wrong way," he said. "This game is more mental than anything else. For him, he got away from what he was doing to make himself and set himself apart."

Cauley-Stein's sophomore season reached its zenith — at least so far — in a five-day period that saw Kentucky beat Eastern Michigan and Providence. In those two games, he averaged 15 points, eight rebounds and eight blocks.

But then Kentucky lost to Baylor and questions about how Cauley-Stein handles physical opponents resurfaced. Against Michigan State, Baylor and Tennessee (arguably, UK's three most physical opponents), Cauley-Stein has averaged 4.3 points, 4.3 rebounds and two blocks.

In UK's last three games, Cauley-Stein has made one of nine shots, scored three points, grabbed 10 rebounds and, maybe most puzzling, blocked only two shots. He played a season-low nine minutes in the victory over Texas A&M on Tuesday.

Calipari noted how he can judge a player's readiness by facial expression.

"When you're coaching, there's a look of 'Keep telling me,'" he said. "And then there's a smirk."

Pausing as if to prepare to show why he was a marketing major, Calipari added, "And what I said, 'Smirking ain't working.'"

Visibly pleased with himself, Calipari then explained the message behind the catchy labeling. "You need to understand why we tell you to do certain things," he said.

Calipari held out Alex Poythress as a player who had crossed the Rubicon, transforming himself into someone taking personal responsibility to correct missteps. The UK coach suggested such an approach will serve Poythress well later in life.

"Something hits him, he's not going to blame someone," Calipari said. "He's not going to listen to alibis. He'll work on changing. His quote, failure, won't be for long."

Calipari held out UK's other 7-footer, Dakari Johnson, as an example to follow.

Johnson's nine minutes in the loss at Arkansas made little impression. "I wasn't sure if he was playing for us or them," Calipari quipped. "That's maybe a hard statement, but it's the truth.

"His practice habits were so good, you could almost predict if he got in this is what was going to happen."

In Kentucky's victory over Texas A&M on Tuesday, Johnson had career highs of 24 minutes and three blocks (he had only three blocks previously this season).

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

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