Willie Cauley-Stein returning to UK for junior season

jtipton@herald-leader.comApril 14, 2014 

After the loss to Connecticut in the national championship game, Willie Cauley-Stein sounded like a player intent on returning to Kentucky next season. On Monday, he made it official.

"I want to come back and have a chance to win a national championship, while also getting closer to earning my degree," Cauley-Stein said in a statement released by UK. "Being at the Final Four this year was special. But not being able to help my teammates on the floor was tough. I look forward to helping us get back there next year while playing in front of the best fans in the nation."

Cauley-Stein's mother, Marlene, noted more than once the desire to win a national championship as a factor in the decision to return.

"He really has that taste for that ring," she said. "It was heart-breaking when they didn't get that ring (last week).

"I'm very proud of him for making that decision."

It was not an easy decision, Marlene Stein said. "He did some soul searching."

Marlene Stein found it difficult to explain exactly what led her son to decide to return to Kentucky. In mock drafts, he had been projected as a possible lottery pick.

"Honestly, Willie is Willie," she said with a chuckle. "Sometimes it's hard to really get into his mind to know what he's really thinking."

Cauley-Stein has not been afraid to walk his own path and buck convention. For example, he dyed his hair bright yellow for several games early in the season.

After Kentucky lost to Connecticut, Cauley-Stein laid out the factors he'd consider. Most involved the benefit in returning to UK next season as a junior. Although he did note the millions of dollars that go with being a first-round draft pick.

But, he added, there is the security that comes with being a college player.

"Be kind of safe or make a jump to the league and mess everything up," he said. "That kind of weighs on (you).

"I've still got something to prove and I still have so much stuff to work on. I (improved) from last year. Now I want to take another step. I want to make another jump in my game."

As a freshman, Cauley-Stein averaged 8.3 points, 6.2 rebounds and 23.6 minutes. Those numbers remained steady as a sophomore: 6.8 points, 6.1 rebounds and 23.8 minutes.

The big jump came in blocked shots. He blocked 60 as a freshman, 106 as a sophomore.

The latter led Cauley-Stein to be named to the All-Southeastern Conference Defensive Team this past season. That made him the sixth UK player in the last five seasons to make the all-defensive team.

Cauley-Stein's 106 blocks tied Nerlens Noel for the second-most in a season by a UK player. Anthony Davis blocked 186 in the 2011-12 season.

An ankle injury abruptly ended Cauley-Stein's season. He limped off the court in the first half of Kentucky's NCAA Tournament Sweet 16 game against Louisville. Marlene Stein termed it a "serious ankle injury," but said her son would be fully recovered before next season.

UK Coach John Calipari has repeatedly suggested that Cauley-Stein's absence against Connecticut was under-appreciated.

"No one ever said Willie Cauley-Stein wasn't playing," Calipari told radio host Jim Rome Monday. "The guy was the center of the defense."

In a statement, Calipari welcomed Cauley-Stein's return.

"I'm happy for Willie and also proud of him for making the best decision for him and his family," the UK coach said. "Being in school for at least three years will get him closer to having a degree and will help him prepare for the next level and life afterwards."

Cauley-Stein, a 7-foot player who came to UK from Northwest High School in Olathe, Kan., has blocked 166 shots in two UK seasons. That ranks sixth in the program's career list. The leader is Jamaal Magloire with 268.

With six blocks and six steals against Georgia in the regular season, Cauley-Stein became the first UK player to achieve that productive double.

Monday's announcement meant Cauley-Stein can match or exceed that achievement. But his mother suggested he can contribute in ways other than statistically.

"I know it's going to be hard," Marlene Stein said of her son possibly being one of the few veterans on next season's UK team. " ... But I think Willie going into his junior year will have a whole different mindset. I think he'll be a great role model."

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

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