UK Men's Basketball

Mark Story: Kentucky's Cauley-Stein has transformed from project to 'complete player'

Kentucky forward Willie Cauley-Stein was pressured by Columbia forward Chris McComber, left, and guard Maodo Lo.
Kentucky forward Willie Cauley-Stein was pressured by Columbia forward Chris McComber, left, and guard Maodo Lo. Herald-Leader

When the word came Thursday night that Alex Poythress had torn an ACL and was out for the season, a pall fell over the Wildcat Coal Lodge.

"The last two days, it felt like somebody died in your family," Willie Cauley-Stein said. "... It was quiet, nobody was joking around. We were all crying and stuff."

Knowing the North Carolina Tar Heels would be in town for a high noon tip-off Saturday, Cauley-Stein tried to get his mind off his injured University of Kentucky classmate.

Which is hard to do when you share a dorm suite with him.

"The thing about Alex, he's there, in the same room," Cauley-Stein said. "Anything I tried to do, he was there, too."

Yet Cauley-Stein found a cathartic way to release the emotions of a trying few days: He helped Kentucky plaster North Carolina.

Playing a starring role in a game in which he took only nine shots, Cauley-Stein scored a team-high 15 points, grabbed six rebounds, made four steals and helped No. 1 Kentucky (11-0) whip No. 21 North Carolina 84-70 before an electric Rupp Arena crowd of 24,406.

If Cauley-Stein's effort against the Tar Heels (6-3) did not quite match his tour de force against then-No. 6 Texas — 21 points, 12 rebounds, five steals, three blocked shots — it was close enough.

"He's pretty doggone effective," North Carolina Coach Roy Williams said afterward. "I watched him in the Texas game, then I watched it again last night. He was unbelievable in that game. It's hard to imagine he was a wide receiver in high school."

As a college junior, the 7-foot Cauley-Stein, once the longest football wideout in Kansas high school football, may be playing his way into a basketball All-American.

You forget watching a program that has become synonymous with the one-and-done phenomenon, the expectation used to be that a college hoops player improved incrementally with time.

Since John Calipari signed Cauley-Stein as something of a sleeper, he has gone from project (freshman) to role player (sophomore) to, so far, the best player on the No. 1 team in college hoops.

"He affects the game in every way," Williams said. "He blocks shots, he gets steals, he gets follow dunks, and he gets dunks when the guards penetrate in there and throw it up around the rim and he goes and gets it. He's a complete player. You look at it, he affected the game drastically and he only took nine shots."

Cauley-Stein's most emphatic stretch applied the finishing touch to North Carolina.

With 5:12 left in the game, Cauley-Stein soared through the air to catch a (very) high lob from Trey Lyles and slammed it home to put UK up 76-62.

The big man elevated so much, Tyler Ulis, the UK freshman point guard, said he now believes it is impossible to throw a lob too high for Cauley-Stein. "I thought it was (possible) until Trey threw that one at the top of the backboard — and Willie caught it with two hands," Ulis said, shaking his head. "He's just a freak athlete."

Not 20 seconds later, Cauley-Stein dunked again off a nifty pass from Ulis (eight assists).

On the next North Carolina possession, Cauley-Stein dove to the floor fighting to secure a steal. The Rupp crowd roared.

"Willie Cauley was really, he was 'Willie good,' today," Calipari said to laughter.

Each time Cauley-Stein left the floor during the game, he walked to the end of the Kentucky bench to touch hands with Poythress (who watched from a seat on press row in the end zone in half one, but moved to the end of UK's bench for half two).

The two UK juniors have shared much more than a room. As freshmen, Poythress and Cauley-Stein shared in a dysfunctional Kentucky team that ended in the NIT. Last year, as sophomores, they were part of a struggling regular season that yielded a stirring run to the NCAA title game.

After both made the decision to return to school for their junior seasons, the duo were at last getting to share the ultimate UK basketball experience — a season that seems destined to see the Cats at or near the top of college hoops all year.

The ACL in his left knee Poythress tore in UK's Thursday practice ended that for the 6-8 forward.

"It's just sad, all the things that me and him have been through together these last three years, and he goes down with an injury," Cauley-Stein said. "That's every player's worst nightmare. It's super sad it had to happen to him, a really good guy."