NASHVILLE — After working a half-day Thursday morning, Marlene Stein got behind the wheel of her 2007 Saturn Aura and headed east. From her home in Oklahoma City, Okla., to Nashville, she planned to drive to the Southeastern Conference Tournament.
"My thinking time," she called the nearly 11-hour trip.
Five times this season, she's driven more than 13 hours to Lexington to watch her younger son, Willie Cauley-Stein, play for Kentucky. In November, she and a friend drove from Oklahoma City to Atlanta to watch UK play Duke.
So to come to the SEC Tournament was a relative spin around the block.
From somewhere on Interstate 40 between Van Buren and Little Rock, Ark., she said of the solo drive to the SEC Tournament, "It's not bad."
Once here, Stein planned to meet her parents, Val and Norma Jean Stein, who drove separately from their home in Spearville, Kan. "To see the SEC Tournament," she said. "To see the Kentucky Wildcats. And, of course, to see my son."
As if to label Kentucky's 2012-13 season, Marlene Stein called her son's freshman season "a learning experience." It's been anything but boring.
"He came in the under-rated player," she said. "And now, all of a sudden, he's getting a lot of playing time. He's loving it."
Nerlens Noel's season-ending knee injury sent shock waves through the UK team and radically changed Cauley-Stein's role. He went from valued reserve to indispensable big man, an evolution clearly on display when Kentucky beat Florida.
"He's done fabulous," UK Coach John Calipari said this week. "The kid has just a great temperament. He's building his own confidence."
In the last six games (or since the sticker-shock game at Tennessee four days after losing Noel), Cauley-Stein has averaged 32.3 minutes. Only Julius Mays (36.2) has played more.
During that span, Cauley-Stein has averaged 11.3 points, 9.0 rebounds and 3.8 blocks (the latter only slightly less than Noel's average of 4.4).
"He's getting better every game," Calipari said. "I could see him have a 25-(point), 15-(rebound)/seven-block night. His feet and hands are so good. It's just he gets tired out there. Because he plays so hard. He's got to come off the floor."
Cauley-Stein spoke of effort as his on-court identity.
"That's my spot on the floor, just energy and effort," he said, "and making hustle plays."
The move to college has been part of a lifetime of adjustment for Cauley-Stein. He grew up in Spearville, a Kansas community known as the City of Windmills. He grew up wishing to play his favorite sport: football.
"Oh, yes," his mother said. "His dream was to be a quarterback. Then they put him at wide receiver, and he was a big target."
After his sophomore high school year, Cauley-Stein accepted basketball as his best chance at an athletic career. It's part of being 7 feet tall. An uncle, Alan Stein, was a 6-11 player for Arkansas-Little Rock and then Fort Hays State. His father, also named Willie, is 6-7.
"He's got height on both sides," Marlene Stein said.
To further his athletic ambitions, Cauley-Stein transferred to a larger high school, Northwest in Olathe, Kan. He left his friends and family and moved into the home of AAU teammate Shavon Shields, the son of former NFL player Will Shields.
"He had to make that sacrifice for his future," Cauley-Stein's mother said.
The recruiting process included visits to Kansas State, Alabama, Florida and Kentucky.
Calipari's record of producing NBA first-round draft choices (15 in the first three years as UK coach) was "high on the list" of factors when choosing a college.
Although he arrived at UK wondering if he could play at college basketball's highest level, that's difficult to believe now.
Fueled by Noel's injury, the Kentucky team may also have had doubts.
"I feel the last two games, the games before Florida, our confidence wasn't there at all," Cauley-Stein said. "There were a lot of questions about whether we were good enough to beat Florida or even make a long run. The win against Florida kind of definitely boosted it up a bit."
Cauley-Stein made, perhaps, the play of the game by taking a charge against Florida's Erik Murphy. The UK big man cited the scouting report, which encouraged the Cats to look to take charges when Florida players drove to the basket.
As to what leads a referee to call charging rather than blocking, Cauley-Stein flashed his engaging candor. "I don't understand that at all," he said.
His mother marvels at her son's deft handling of any UK player's media obligations. She has trouble getting a full sentence out of him.
"I think, 'Wow, he's really good with interviews,'" Marlene Stein said. "He's a quiet kid. He really doesn't like to talk a whole lot."