LEXINGTON — Remember two years ago when Connecticut struggled to a so-so Big East Conference finish, barely got into the NCAA tournament because it won the Big East tournament and then won the national title — and beat Kentucky in the Final Four — thanks to the inspired play of guard Kemba Walker?
Could Kentucky have a Walker-like player to spark a postseason resurgence starting with Friday’s play in Nashville in the Southeastern Conference tournament?
“Maybe it’s Willie (Cauley-Stein),” Kentucky coach John Calipari said. “Maybe Willie becomes the most dominating big guy in college basketball, makes a difference in every game, and everybody else just does what they’re supposed to do.”
Florida scored just four field goals in the second half of Saturday’s UK win when Cauley-Stein, who has become UK’s shot blocker and insider presence after the injury to Nerlens Noel, was on the floor. He’s averaging 8.4 points and 6.1 rebounds per game and has 58 blocks.
“I think the staff told him, ‘Every time you came out, you saw what happened.’ I had to play him with four fouls with 11 minutes to go. ‘Why’d you play your guy with four fouls?’ We want to win. Didn’t want to lose. So I put him back in so we could win the game,” Calipari said. “And then if he fouled out, I would figure out what to do to try to win the game.”
The UK¿coach said Cauley-Stein has done “fabulous” considering he was the least heralded player in UK’s No. 1 ranked recruiting class.
“This kid just has a great temperament. He’s growing. He’s building his own confidence. And I say it, if you want confidence from the Coach – ‘Coach, you yell too much at me.’ You can’t play. You stink. You build your own self-confidence,” Calipari said. “You do it through great preparation and hard work and demonstrated performance. It doesn’t matter what a fan yells at you, what the media writes about you; it has no effect on you.
“You have confidence. Well, he’s building his own, and it’s coming slowly because he was playing football six months ago. He was a heck of a wide receiver, by the way. But he is becoming a better and better player and becoming an integral part of what we’re doing.”
Calipari said he could see a 25-point, 15-rebound, seven-block game coming for the freshman center.
“He has that. His feet and hands are so good, it’s just he gets so tired out there because he plays so hard he’s got to come off the floor,” Calipari said. “You look at what he means to this team, he’s had a huge impact. Nerlens being gone has hurt us, but we’re still blocking shots, we’re still rebounding the ball and doing the stuff we were doing when Nerlens was here.”
Cauley-Stein said he likes that Calipari is making the players focus and didn’t give them an extra day off after Saturday’s win over Florida.
“It was good that Coach didn’t back off yesterday in practice and is going to continue to push us through because he said last year, or in years past, that they would have had two days off instead of one day off. So it’s good. It’ll keep us in the right mind frame that we need to be in going into it,” Cauley-Stein said Tuesday.
Kentucky plays either Vanderbilt or Arkansas in the SEC tournament quarterfinals Friday. A win likely would secure a NCAA tourney berth for UK. A loss could leave UK out of the tourney.
“We just need to go into the tournament with the mindset like we’re not trying to get beat, like we want to win it, obviously, and keep it rolling,” Cauley-Stein said.
He said UK has been where it seemed to have turned the corner and then “reverted right back” to inconsistent play like it had in consecutive losses at Arkansas and Georgia. That’s why he’s worried more about UK’s focus Friday than who UK plays.
“Guys relax or guys don’t focus. I honestly don’t know,” Cauley-Stein said when asked about the lack of team focus. “Just listen to what Coach has to say because he’s been through it for so many years. So that’s something we don’t get is the time that he’s spent in this and preparing guys for it. We’re fresh in the game; he’s been there for a long time so we just have to listen and I don’t think that’s what we’ve been doing.”
Both Cauley-Stein and freshman Archie Goodwin were vocal about the team’s lackadaisical play at Georgia. The next game UK upset Florida.
“It definitely affected the game. When guys step up and do what they have to do, it just makes everybody else’s job easier. We just played better,” Cauley-Stein said.
That included freshman Alex Poythress, who had 12 rebounds against Florida and played a much more physical game.
“Alex is just ... I don’t feel like Alex knows yet. And Coach says you mature at different rates and I feel like he’s just taking longer to mature. Alex is a great kid. He’s not bad or anything, so it’s just whether he wants to mature faster and listen and do what Coach is telling him to do. It’s all up to Alex,” Cauley-Stein said. “He’s showing maturity in saying that he’s wrong and not saying, ‘Well, everybody else is wrong that’s watching,’ or, ‘Coach is wrong.’ He is stepping up and saying he’s doing bad and he’s the problem and stuff like that.
“Alex is in spurts. He’ll play like a beast in spurts and then I don’t know what happens. It’s not a beast though. And then there are some games where he’s playing 25 minutes as a beast and then those are the games where we’re beating people by 20.”
Cauley-Stein understands his role, especially with Noel gone.
“Just defending and energy, that’s where I feel like that’s my spot on the floor is just energy and effort and making hustle points and just talking to everybody and loosening everybody up,” Cauley-Stein said.