UK Men's Basketball

Is Cauley-Stein a square peg or Kentucky's best player?

Willie Cauley-Stein  during UK basketball practice on Thursday October 16, 2014  in Lexington, Ky. Photo by Mark Cornelison | Staff
Willie Cauley-Stein during UK basketball practice on Thursday October 16, 2014 in Lexington, Ky. Photo by Mark Cornelison | Staff Herald-Leader

When a reporter asked about Willie Cauley-Stein at Media Day on Thursday, John Calipari hit on a theme that's rapidly becoming familiar. The Kentucky coach said Cauley-Stein must stay "inside the circle."

Huh?

Even Cauley-Stein professed confusion about what exactly Calipari meant.

"It doesn't make sense to me," he said later Thursday. "Yeah, stay in the circle."

Upon reflection, Cauley-Stein said he believed Calipari was referring to how the 7-footer withdrew from team activities as he recovered from a stress fracture in an ankle.

"When I was hurt, I wasn't really around a lot," he said. "I kind of did my own thing, and I think that's what he really meant."

The injury occurred early in Kentucky's Sweet 16 victory over Louisville. With crutches always nearby, he watched from the bench as Kentucky made a memorable NCAA Tournament run: victories over Louisville and Michigan in the region semifinals and finals, then a victory over Wisconsin in the national semifinals. Cauley-Stein also sat out the championship game loss to Connecticut, which added a what-if quality to Kentucky's postseason.

To rehabilitate the ankle in the offseason further isolated Cauley-Stein. He kept busy with interests in music and art.

"Just to keep myself at peace and not go crazy," he said. "Sitting around the waiting is the worst. ...

"I kind of separated myself as a way to cope."

Cauley-Stein did not play in Kentucky's six exhibition games in the Bahamas in August. He said he could have played if something of immediate importance was at stake. "It just wasn't worth it to play," he said.

He participated in Kentucky's NBA combine last week and pronounced himself fully engaged in the team.

"Now, I'm back," he said. "I'm full-force back. I get along with my teammates."

As UK fans know, Cauley-Stein has been a free spirit. He colored his hair a rich yellow hue for a few games last season. Calipari quipped that the hair color carried a requirement to play as productively as Dennis Rodman.

Cauley-Stein also wore a T-shirt he helped design to a postgame news conference at the Bahamas. His initials — W.C.S. — prominently displayed on the front of the shirt. In the past, he has spoken of being unafraid to express his individuality.

Calipari likes to talk about the recruiting process in which he saw Cauley-Stein playing football or carrying a tennis racquet in a high school hallway.

Calipari said the inside-the-circle advice should not be interpreted as an attempt to make Cauley-Stein conform.

"I don't want to take away from what he is," the UK coach said. "I'm not trying to tell him, 'You've got to do this.'"

Calipari linked the inside-the-circle comment to the role of team leader. Given Cauley-Stein's two seasons of experience and status as a member of the Southeastern Conference's all-defensive team in 2013-14, he seems well suited for leadership.

"If you try to separate yourself as a player from the pack, you can never serve them," Calipari said. "You can never lead them. He's a good kid. He just has to make sure he's inside this circle with what we're doing because if we're going to be special, someone's got to be that player."

Calipari noted how Cauley-Stein has improved since last season. NBA types were "amazed" by his improved shooting during the combine, the UK coach said.

"He still plays too fast," Calipari said. "He still plays out of balance some.

"But it's nice to have a guy who can guard a 1-2-3-4-5 on the court."

Maybe it's that defensive versatility and offensive improvement that makes Calipari speak of Cauley-Stein as a potential difference maker. The UK coach noted how Anthony Davis in 2012 and Shabazz Napier in 2014 were the best players on the floor and not-so-coincidentally their teams won national championships.

"When we play that kind of game, are they going to have a player better than we have?" Calipari said of high-stakes games next spring. "So who will that be? Can it be Willie?

"He's more comfortable. He's more confident. But he's got to be in that circle."

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