Mark Story: Cats' success hinges on Cauley-Stein owning paint

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistMarch 22, 2014 

ST. LOUIS — Willie Cauley-Stein scored his first — and only — field goal with 10:16 left in the game.

Those were his only points.

Yet with the Olathe, Kan., product playing the first NCAA Tournament game of his career against the home-state school that recruited him longest and hardest, the 7-foot sophomore showed exactly why he can be a pivotal player if Kentucky is to make a March Madness run in 2014.

With Cauley-Stein swatting shots and altering others, No. 8 seed Kentucky (25-10) harried Kansas State (20-13) into a frigid shooting performance and won an NCAA tourney battle of Wildcats 56-49 before 19,223 in the Scottrade Center.

With the win, Kentucky advances into the Midwest Region round of 32 to face top-seed and unbeaten Wichita State (35-0) Sunday around 2:45 p.m. The Shockers took care of business by throttling overmatched No. 16 seed Cal Poly (14-20) 64-37 in Friday night.

UK had other heroes in running its NCAA Tournament winning streak to seven-straight games. Julius Randle produced his 21st double-double of the season with 19 points and 15 rebounds. Aaron Harrison hit 6-of-10 shots and scored 18.

The biggest advantage UK may have against Wichita State — against the 2014 NCAA tourney field, actually — is its length. But for all Kentucky's size, Cauley-Stein is really UK's sole shot blocker.

What the sometimes maddeningly inconsistent big man can mean when he plays with energy and passion was on vivid display against Kansas State.

The official numbers for Cauley-Stein were eight rebounds, four blocked shots and a whopping four steals. At one point in the first half, he spiked a Kansas State shot attempt with such vigor it would have done the beach volleyball tour proud.

In the second half, the 7-foot sophomore got into a scrum for a loose ball with 6-2 Kansas State senior point guard Will Spradling. Cauley-Stein wrested the ball away from the prone Spradling with authority.

"Willie is amazing," Kentucky guard Andrew Harrison said. "It's really hard to score on us when Willie's in the game."

With Cauley-Stein's presence essentially driving K-State out of the paint, Kansas State shot a putrid 19-of-53 from the floor. Its 49 points was a season low. Randle and Cauley-Stein's board work allowed UK to win the battle of the boards 40-28.

Afterwards, K-State Coach Bruce Weber said he believes Kentucky's improvement this season has come on the defensive end.

What had to give Kansas State fans a sick feeling in the pit of their stomachs Friday night is that, had the recruiting tides turned differently, Cauley-Stein could easily have been playing for the "other" Wildcats.

As Cauley-Stein explained to reporters Thursday, the former Kansas State coaching staff of Frank Martin recruited him longer and harder than any other school.

"They were recruiting me for years; Kentucky recruited me for months," Cauley-Stein said. "The relationships built (with Kansas State), I'm sure they feel like I betrayed them. But that's just the way the game goes. It's how everything works."

To have a shot at foiling Wichita State's perfect season, Kentucky will need another vigorous effort from Cauley-Stein against another school from his home state.

The Shockers may not have played in a power conference, but the Missouri Valley champions are legit. They boast a veteran nucleus back from the team that beat a No. 1 seed (Gonzaga) and a No. 2 (Ohio State) on the road to the 2013 Final Four — where State pushed eventual national champion Louisville to the brink before falling in the national semifinals.

What Wichita State is not, is especially tall. WSU senior center Kadeem Coleby is 6-9. Standout forward Cleanthony Early is 6-8. The other three starters for Gregg Marshall's Shockers are guards — 6-3 Ron Baker, 6-2 Tekele Cotton and 5-11 point guard Fred VanVleet.

Kentucky's best bet to ruin the Wichita State perfecto is if Kentucky's length can take the Shockers out of their offensive comfort zone.

The prime way for UK to do that would seem to involve Cauley-Stein turning in another energetic night of human erasing.

Mark Story: (859) 231-3230.Email: mstory@herald-leader.com. Twitter: @markcstory. Blog: markstory.bloginky.com.

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