One look at Willie Cauley-Stein is all it usually takes to realize that he is a gifted shot-blocker. Add in the way he has effortlessly protected the rim during his two seasons at Kentucky, and it's obvious the 7-footer has post skills that predate a growth spurt.
Still, Matt Suther is here to erase any doubt.
Suther used to coach Cauley-Stein when he played center for the MoKan Elite AAU program. Ask him to describe his former player's shot-blocking prowess, and he doesn't hesitate with his answer.
"The best," Suther said. "No question. Willie has always been an extremely talented kid. His combination of size, speed and agility is pretty rare anywhere. Not just coming out of Kansas City, anywhere in the country."
That unique skill set will be on display Friday when No. 9 seed Kansas State takes on No. 8 seed Kentucky in the NCAA Tournament at the Scottrade Center in St. Louis. Cauley-Stein played high school basketball for Spearville, Kan., and Olathe Northwest before leaving the Sunflower State to play at a traditional college powerhouse. Now he is going to try to beat a team filled with familiar faces.
K-State senior guard Will Spradling and junior forward Nino Williams played for MoKan before landing in Manhattan, Kan. They consider Cauley-Stein a friend, and they were almost teammates.
Cauley-Stein was heavily recruited as a senior at Olathe Northwest, and his final four schools were Kentucky, Florida, Alabama and K-State. His decision came down to Kentucky and K-State.
He made several trips to K-State games and took a recruiting visit to Kentucky. For a brief while, it appeared as though he was leaning toward staying close to home.
"He was close to coming here," Spradling said. "I know it came down to the last couple days with who he picked."
But he ended up choosing Kentucky. That could bring back some memories for everyone involved.
"He was really torn," Suther said. "K-State was very close to getting him. He was comfortable being close to home, and him being a Kansas kid it was a tough choice for him. I think the combination of the tradition of the basketball program at Kentucky and Coach (John) Calipari doing a great job of recruiting him won him over. Anthony Davis being there helped, too. He thought he had the same skill set, and he liked how productive he was."
Though Cauley-Stein hasn't matched Davis, he is on his way to a successful career. He is averaging 7.2 points, 6.3 rebounds and 2.9 blocks as a sophomore. He has blocked as many as nine shots in a game, and he is one of the top defensive big men in the NCAA Tournament. All while remaining the character he used to be back home. Earlier this season, he made news for bleaching his hair blond.
He is coming off one of his best games, a double-double against No. 1-ranked Florida.
"I thought Willie Cauley was ridiculous how well he played," Calipari said.
The experts agree. Cauley-Stein is a surefire NBA Draft pick whenever he decides to turn pro. For now, he is focused on helping Kentucky salvage a disappointing season. The team was expected to contend for a national championship behind a star-studded freshman class. Instead, it is 24-10 with six losses coming in the mediocre Southeastern Conference.
But Kentucky showed progress in the SEC Tournament, winning two games before falling by a point to the Gators. The hope now is to build off that.
"I like where we are at," Cauley-Stein told reporters this week. "We have the chance to change a few little things and make this run."
Back home, Suther isn't surprised to hear him speak confidently. If anyone has earned that right, he thinks it's Cauley-Stein.
"He is consistently playing hard," Suther said. "Offensively, he is not dominant at Kentucky, but defensively you have seen some progress. He has become known as a guy who is always playing hard and doing all the little things that help his team win. He has grown so much and developed on and off the court the last couple years. It's been cool to watch."