LEXINGTON — He had his best game at Kentucky, but freshman center Willie Cauley-Stein was quick to credit his teammates for his success.
“When my teammates play like that, it helps me. If teammates are doing their things, it excites me. It’s fun playing that way instead of feeling like you’ve got to make a major move every time you get the ball,” Cauley-Stein said after Wednesday’s 74-70 win over Vanderbilt.
He had a career-high 20 points on 8-for-10 shooting from the field along with seven rebounds and three blocks, including two in the final minutes when UK was clinging to a slight lead.
Those blocks pleased Cauley-Stein more than the scoring.
“The two big blocks (pleased me most) because even though our coaches told us we do not have to block shots, and don’t have to take up for where Nerlens (Noel) was at but set charges and do the extra stuff,” Cauley-Stein said.
That was UK’s second game without Noel, the nation’s top shot blocker and UK’s leading rebounder.
“He is a great player. We could have played better defense on him. He caught the ball way too easily inside,” Vanderbilt center Josh Henderson said. “When they have a guy that athletic it is hard to guard that drive and they throw up an alley-oop to him.”
Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings thought the “play of their big guy inside” was the major difference in the game.
“We just weren’t as good defensively as we’ve been. Some of that had to do with them. We gave up 20 to a guy who isn’t averaging 20. That usually gets you beat,” Stallings said.
What irritated Stallings most was that the majority of Cauley-Stein’s points came way too easily.
“We didn’t guard the ball and they kept breaking us down off the dribble. He was the recipient of lobs and easy point blank shots. We would just stand behind him as if he hadn’t scored any points so far tonight and let him throw it in there. Then he’d back us in and jump hook us from two feet,” Stallings said.
“He kind of just did it however he wanted to. We should have just asked him what his preference was. Did he prefer a dunk or prefer to get it back and slam a jump hook? Other than asking, we couldn’t have been any more accommodating I don’t think.”
Kentucky freshman Archie Goodwin thought Cauley-Stein had a “great game” against Vanderbilt.
“That is tribute to him working hard in practice and working hard by himself. He came out and hustled and we were able to find him on different plays,” Goodwin said. “He made a jumper, too, and that shows he has been working.¿I was proud for him. I was happy for him.”
Kentucky coach John Calipari said Cauley-Stein was “building his own confidence” with his performance.
“Your self-esteem, your self-confidence, your self-worth, you build that yourself. There's no coach that does that for you. You do it by an unbelievable work ethic and then demonstrated performance. You build your own confidence,” Calipari said.
“Willie has just not been out there enough to have demonstrated performance. He did today. He demonstrated what he can do, which is going to help his confidence, there's no question.
“What we are trying to do is get them to see, you've got to be in the weight room, you've got to get in the gym extra, you have to go over there at night. You have to build your own self¿esteem and self¿worth and that confidence that you've got to have to really play this game and create a swagger.”
Stallings thought Kentucky showed definite offensive improvement in its second game without Noel due in large part to Cauley-Stein’s play.
“I thought they moved the ball well. I thought they were crisp. They certainly put it on the floor and compromised our defense, especially the whole first half. If we don’t guard well, we don’t win. That’s the first time we have scored 70 in league play. We’re not going to win if we aren’t going to guard,” Stallings said.
Missouri coach Frank Haith brings his team to Rupp Arena on Saturday night for ESPN GameDay. He thought UK looked much better against Vanderbilt than it did against Tennessee in a 30-point loss last Saturday in its first game without Noel.
“You could see them being a lot more relaxed. The first time you play without a player as important as he is, you knew it would be tough for them, but it looked like they were more relaxed, more comfortable the second time out. We know we’re going to get Kentucky’s very best on Saturday,” Haith said.