As evidenced by his personal Southeastern Conference highs in points (13) and blocks (two), plus six rebounds, freshman Willie Cauley-Stein did not look rusty in Kentucky's 77-55 victory over South Carolina Tuesday.
But looks were a bit deceiving.
"My lungs feel rusty," he said. "I was winded a little bit.
"Once I get back in running and basketball shape, I'll be good."
Cauley-Stein missed four games because of what UK described as a "minor procedure" on his left knee. He dipped his toe in competitive waters in a four-minute stint at Texas A&M last weekend before taking the plunge against South Carolina.
The injury dates to his eighth-grade football season, he said.
"It never really hurt," he said. "It just would swell up really badly."
Cauley-Stein described the injury as a loose piece of bone from his kneecap floating in his joint. He wore a tight sleeve on the knee to keep the piece in place.
An X-ray and an MRI examination revealed the loose piece of bone, he said. UK doctors suggested the bone piece be removed.
"My mom was telling me I probably should get it done," Cauley-Stein said before adding, "You need to listen to your mom."
His mother, Marlene, stayed with Cauley-Stein as he watched telecasts of the UK games he missed.
"At least I had somebody there with me," he said. "I was laid up in bed with ice on it all day."
UK Coach John Calipari saluted Cauley-Stein's contributions to the victory over South Carolina.
"He just added energy," Calipari said. "Went after balls. Rebounded the ball."
When asked if the energy reflected the way Calipari instructed to play or simply was his style, Cauley-Stein said, "He just tells the whole team to play that way. Piece by piece, it's spreading to other people."
Cauley-Stein said he got his inspiration from Kyle Wiltjer.
"Eventually, everybody is going to play that way ... to take it to another level," he said.
UK, which went into the game ranked No. 298 in free-throw accuracy, made 18 of 28.
Nerlens Noel missed all three of his attempts. In the last three games, he's made only seven of 21.
Calipari was loath to criticize Noel for anything.
"My belief is if it's a late game and he has to make them, he'll make them," Calipari said. "Because he's got that will to win. Whether it looks ugly or he's missed five, if the game's on the line, he'd make them."
Accentuating the positive, Calipari noted that Cauley-Stein made three of five free throws. "So I'm not worried about Nerlens," he said. "He's the least (of UK's worries)."
Cauley-Stein credited work with assistant coach Orlando Antigua and a mental adjustment for his free-throw accuracy.
"Before I was thinking a whole lot of negative thoughts," he said. "Now, maybe I'm saying a prayer. Try to get my mind off bad things. ... Look at the rim instead of the ball. Maybe I'll just play games with myself and let my mechanics do the work."
Calipari explained why he took Alex Poythress out of the game early in each half.
In the first half, Wiltjer came in for Poythress at the 17:13 mark.
"He's going to play the first three (minutes)," Calipari said of Poythress, "and that's about the extent that he can sustain."
In the second half, Poythress came out after 44 seconds."You miss two dunks, you're out," Calipari said. "What's wrong? You tell me you're tired? Your leg hurts? Your toenails? What is it? You missed the dunks. You've got to come out."
Calipari explained why he's coaching without a tie in recent games.
"Part of it is I wanted to kick back a little bit," he said. "Plus, I was running out of towels, and I was sweating through ties.
"But my wife said she liked it. Other people said they don't. I don't really care. I care about my wife more than anybody else. She said she liked (no tie)."
A moment later, Calipari added facetiously, "I'm also going to grow a beard, too."