The Southeastern Conference will announce its Player of the Year Tuesday. If Kentucky's Willie Cauley-Stein wins the coaches' vote, it will be a historic salute to intangible contributions that are difficult to quantify with numbers.
Since the coaches began naming a SEC Player of the Year in 1987, every winner has averaged double-digit points: from Chandler Parsons' 11.3-point average for Florida in 2010-11 to Chris Jackson's 30.2-point average for LSU in 1988-89.
Cauley-Stein averaged 8.9 points in Kentucky's 31-0 regular season. Of course, UK's nine-man rotation and Coach John Calipari's effort to dividing playing time more or less equally deflated every player's statistics.
Even with that, Cauley-Stein does not lead Kentucky in rebounding nor shot blocking. His averages of 6.4 rebounds and 1.6 blocks are second on the team to the 6.6 rebounds and 2.4 blocks posted by Karl-Anthony Towns (who averaged 4.7 fewer minutes).
Yet, on a teleconference Monday, SEC coaches lauded Cauley-Stein's defensive versatility in ways that suggested seeing is believing no matter what the cold, unfeeling numbers might say.
"Willie Cauley-Stein is probably the best defensive player in the country with the way he can affect games," Mississippi State Coach Rick Ray said. "What makes him a special defender is the way he can switch ball-screens and guard anybody in the nation. He can play a 'five' (center). He can guard a 'four' (power forward). He can switch a ball-screen and guard a point guard."
Ray also suggested that Cauley-Stein. a 7-foot junior, re-defines athleticism.
"I think athletic ability is just measured these days by being able to run and jump," Ray said. "But lateral quickness and foot speed makes him special. So I think he's the best defender in our league, and really the best defender in the country."
Ole Miss assistant coach Bill Armstrong, who substituted for Andy Kennedy on the call, also noted how Cauley-Stein can switch off a big man and contain a perimeter player with the ball near the three-point line.
"He can not only guard in the post and block shots," Armstrong said, "but he can switch ball-screens and sit down and guard a point guard as well as most point guards in the country. ...
"He's as good a defender as you'll find in college basketball."
South Carolina Coach Frank Martin echoed his colleagues, noting how "interchangeable" Cauley-Stein is.
"His ability to just guard your point guard, guard your shooter, guard your center, guard your power forward," Martin said. "So interchangeable, and he's rock solid in guarding every spot."
Relatively modest statistics (for a player prominently mentioned for national awards) hasn't dampened appreciation of Cauley-Stein's play. On Monday, he was named one of five finalists for the 2015 Kareem Abdul-Jabbar Center of the Year Award, which is one of four inaugural awards the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame is presenting to the top players in college basketball.
Arkansas' Bobby Portis, who seems to be the main threat to Cauley-Stein being named SEC Player of the Year, is also a finalist for the Abdul-Jabbar Award. Other finalists are Jahlil Okafor of Duke, Rakeem Christmas of Syracuse and Frank Kaminsky of Wisconsin.
Earlier, Cauley-Stein was named a finalist for the Oscar Robertson Trophy and the John R. Wooden Award, each of which designate a national Player of the Year. He has also been named a semifinalist for the Naismith Trophy, yet another national Player-of-the-Year award.
If the SEC names Cauley-Stein its Player of the Year, he'll become only the third player to get the award despite not being named the league's Player of the Week even once during the season. Bar bets could be won by naming the other two: Kentucky's John Wall in 2009-10 and Keith Bogans in 2002-03.
No coach revealed his Player-of-the-Year vote, but Martin hinted that both Cauley-Stein and Portis deserved consideration. Arkansas finished second, albeit a distant second, to UK.
"I've always believed the Player of the Year should always come from a team that's competing for a championship," the South Carolina coach said. "If they did not win a championship, then they should be competing for that championship.
"I'm not a big give-the-MVP-to-a-guy-with-great-stats (guy) because every bad team has a guy with good stats. I believe winning is part of that formula."
Kentucky's Marcus Lee was named to the 2014-15 Southeastern Conference Community Service Team. One player from each of the 14 SEC schools was named to the team.
Some highlights of Lee's community service during his two years at UK:
■ He is the treasurer of the school's Student-Athlete Advisory Committee, having coordinated the athletics department's blanket project where student-athletes made blankets for UK Children's Hospital patients.
■ He has been involved in UK's backpack program with God's Pantry.
■ He volunteered to help out during the events inside the Joe Craft Center as part of National Student-Athlete Day. He also took part in the Samaritan's Feet Project in addition to delivering food to Midnight Madness Campers.
Herald-Leader Staff Report