LEXINGTON, Ky. (AP) – Kentucky is looking for its 7-footers to become more centered.
The No. 14 Wildcats (14-4, 4-1 SEC) especially need Willie Cauley-Stein to play bigger in Saturday’s game against visiting Georgia (10-7, 4-1), which is one of the better teams in the league in rebounding.
Since establishing himself as one of the nation’s top defensive players with 56 blocks through 15 games, the sophomore has produced just two rejections, 10 rebounds and three points in his past three.
If Cauley-Stein can’t get going, coach John Calipari might turn to freshman Dakari Johnson instead. Johnson’s game is still developing, but he picked up the slack in place of his struggling teammate Tuesday night against Texas A&M with seven rebounds and six points in Kentucky’s 68-51 victory.
Improved performances by both are important to helping star freshman forward Julius Randle, averaging team highs of 16.7 points and 10.6 rebounds, be effective on both ends of the floor.
Practices have revealed signs of the defensive force who had 30 blocks during one five-game stretch this season, but Calipari was still at a loss to explain Cauley-Stein’s recent struggles.
"You go down that road and you start thinking the wrong way, and this game is more mental than anything else," said the coach, adding that he expects Cauley-Stein to play against the Bulldogs despite hitting his head on the floor in a fall at the end of Thursday’s workout.
"He got away from what he was doing to make himself and set himself apart. He’ll be fine, though."
Anything close to Cauley-Stein’s early season form is critical to keeping Kentucky opponents honest on both ends. He’s averaging 8.0 points, 7.0 rebounds and 3.2 blocks but has dropped off considerably since a 15-point, six-rebound effort at Vanderbilt two weeks ago.
Cauley-Stein fouled out with 9.5 seconds left in regulation of an overtime loss at Arkansas, which won on Michael Qualls’ offensive rebound and dunk with 0.2 seconds remaining Jan. 14. He went scoreless with three rebounds in 19 minutes in last Saturday’s win over Tennessee, which outrebounded the Wildcats 39-24.
Foul trouble limited Cauley-Stein to just one point, one rebound and zero blocks in nine minutes against Texas A&M. That might have been costly if not for reserve forward Alex Poythress (16 points, five rebounds) and Johnson, who blocked three shots and altered other attempts by the Aggies.
"I’ve just been trying to come off the bench and add a little spark to the game, bring energy," Johnson said.
Johnson’s growth and conditioning remain works in progress, but Calipari is glad to have a performance baseline to build on.
"He’s had ups and downs, now," Calipari said. "We could go back to Arkansas, where I wasn’t sure if he was playing for us or them. Then he comes back and his practice habits were so good that you could almost predict that if he got in, this was what was going to happen. … He went in and said, `you should be playing me instead of Willie.’ (But) you don’t say that with anything other than your play."
Kentucky seeks its fourth straight home win against the Bulldogs, whose plus-10.4 rebounding margin is second to Tennessee in SEC play. Forwards Marcus Thornton (5.6 rebounds per game) and Donte’ Williams (5.5) lead Georgia, which has won two straight.
The Bulldogs have their best conference start since 2002-03, when they also were 4-1.
"There’s a long way to go in the league," coach Mark Fox said after Wednesday’s 97-76 win over South Carolina. "It’s way too early to talk about anything other than the next game."
The Wildcats’ hopes depend on Cauley-Stein establishing an inside presence, and they’re confident he will regain form.
Saturday would be a good time for Kentucky to have Cauley-Stein snap out of his slump after Georgia outrebounded the Gamecocks 39-27.
"The effort’s always been there," senior guard Jarrod Polson said of his teammate. "Any player in general has slumps and stuff like that. You can’t really read too much into it, but all I know is Willie’s been doing really well in practice and looks like the old Willie again. That’s definitely a good sign for us."