Growing up in Kansas, Willie Cauley-Stein could be wearing the "other" blue-and-white uniform in Tuesday night's Kentucky-Kansas game. The University of Kansas was only 29 miles west of where he finished his high school career.
So, of course, his family thought Cauley-Stein would play for Kansas, the basketball favorite for many of his relatives.
Instead, both Kansas and Kentucky came late to the recruiting process. John Calipari's boffo success in producing NBA draft picks made a difference. So did another, much more surprising factor.
"What sold him on Kentucky was how pressured it would be each and every day," said Mike Grove, who coached Cauley-Stein at Northwest High School in Olathe, Kan.
The unblinking scrutiny of Kentucky basketball, which Calipari regularly tries to tamp down, is supposed to work against UK.
"He needs that," Grove said. "To push himself. Willie is an extremely smart kid. He understands what he is and, sometimes, what he's not."
As a high school prospect, Cauley-Stein was a project. Perry Ellis, who plays for the Jayhawks, was the celebrated high school senior from Kansas in the Class of 2012. "Willie was kind of a late bloomer," Grove said.
Big-time colleges wondered about Cauley-Stein's lack of offense, especially as a low-post scorer.
"He just never would give time to it," Grove said. "He wanted to play on the perimeter. He didn't want to put in the time on low-post skill work."
Cauley-Stein impacted high school and AAU games as a defender. It got him significant recruiting interest from schools such as Oklahoma State, Kansas State and Florida.
Kansas belatedly inquired about Cauley-Stein. Grove recalled then-assistant Danny Manning calling. When Cauley-Stein did not jump at the chance to play for the Jayhawks, Kansas moved on to other prospects.
"We were puzzled," said Cauley-Stein's mother, Marlene. "But you take the good with the bad. You don't dwell on it. He's happy where he's at."
It wasn't until early in Cauley-Stein's high school senior year that Kentucky got involved. Once at UK, Cauley-Stein realized his low-post game needed to improve, Grove said. It still does, Calipari said as recently as Sunday.
"He's not posting the way he's capable of posting," the UK coach said after the Buffalo game Sunday. "He's stepping off the block all the time. So we're going to continue to work on him catching it tight (meaning closer to the basket). He's great out on the floor. He's great defensively. There were a lot of good things."
Not that Cauley-Stein isn't impacting games. In UK's victory over Buffalo, he contributed four assists, a block and 10 rebounds. "Pretty good game for a 7-footer," Calipari said.
After UK's opening-game victory over Grand Canyon, Calipari referred to Cauley-Stein as a rover. It's a label the player likes.
Cauley-Stein bristled, albeit in a thoughtful and agreeable way, when asked about the improvement he's made as a player since arriving at Kentucky in 2012.
"There's not much room for (further) improvement," he said. "I could easily get in the next four weeks that much more better, and you're asking me the same question: How much better did you get?"
Platoons, Part XXXIV
Calipari made it clear — again — on Monday that UK is not wedded to its much-discussed platoon system.
"We don't even know if this is how we're going to defend at the end of the year," the UK coach said. "I don't know if this is the best way for us to play offensively yet. We don't. Is this the best way for us to practice? We have so many questions to answer."
UK leads all Division I programs with 2,142 victories. Kansas is second with 2,127 victories. Head-to-head games account for the margin, with UK leading the series 21-6.
"Their program is so tradition-rich," Kansas Coach Bill Self said Sunday. "It's the bluest of the blue bloods. "And ours is right there with them."
UK has eight national championships, Kansas three. UK has been to 16 Final Fours, Kansas 14. Kansas leads UK 57-51 in league championships, including the last 10. That's the most by any program since the UCLA dynasty of the 1960s and 1970s.
Lyles goes home
UK freshman Trey Lyles returns home to Indianapolis for the game.
"If he plays well, he'll be the first player we've taken home in my career who played well," Calipari said in a light-hearted tone. "It's possible he could be the first."
In 2013, Little Rock native Archie Goodwin scored 14 points at Arkansas. But he also had three turnovers, got booed every time he touched the ball and afterward claimed people in Little Rock were much more agreeable.
In 2011, Marquis Teague scored 15 points and handed out five assists at Indiana. He also failed to give the foul Calipari wanted in the final seconds, which helped Indiana get the ball to Christian Watford, who made the game-winning shot at the buzzer.
In 2011, Terrence Jones made only five of 14 shots, scored 12 points and committed four turnovers at Portland. In the game prior to his homecoming, he had 25 points and 12 rebounds. At the Maui Invitational later in the week, he averaged 23 points and 11.3 rebounds.
Calipari welcomed the news of Louisville being the host city for the 2016 NCAA Tournament South Region. "Good for our state," he said. "It's good for the city that drives the state. ... It's good for all the fans who love basketball in the state." ... Dan Shulman, Jay Bilas and Andy Katz will call the game for ESPN.