Top-ranked UK keeps rolling as Cauley-Stein goes missing
Dress him up in a red-and-white striped shirt and a pair of bluejeans, give him some brown loafers and round specs, and it would still be easy to find Willie Cauley-Stein.
The 7-footer stands head and shoulders over just about everyone.
Lately, though, the national player of the year candidate for top-ranked Kentucky has gone missing. In his last two games, including Thursday night’s blowout of Missouri, the junior forward has taken two shots – making both – and scored a total of four points.
Forget about Waldo. Better question is, ”Where’s Willie?”
Not even coach John Calipari is sure of the answer to that one.
”I said, `Willie, come on!”’ Calipari said late Thursday, recalling a point midway through the Missouri game. ”You’re one of the best players in the country. Go do your thing.”
Like he was doing earlier in the season.
Cauley-Stein skipped the NBA draft last year to return to Lexington for another season, and for a while it looked like a wise move. His stock started to soar as he showed off a more polished offensive game, and the same freakish defense that has made him the first Kentucky player to ever amass more than 200 blocks and 100 steals had only improved.
In one of the Wildcats’ toughest non-conference games, a 63-51 victory over then-No. 6 Texas in early December, Cauley-Stein poured in a career-best 21 points. He had 12 rebounds, five steals and three blocked shots. He was assertive on offense, getting to the foul line a dozen times, and certainly looked the part of a lottery pick when the draft rolls around again in June.
Cauley-Stein had several solid games after that, including a 15-point outing against North Carolina and 12-rebound performance in an overtime victory over Ole Miss.
Lately, though that assertiveness has ebbed. The swagger has vanished. The dominance that he so often showed in the non-conference has been missing in SEC play.
A couple weeks ago, he scored just six points in 27 minutes in the Wildcats’ lackluster win over Vanderbilt. He had two points and four boards while picking up three fouls against South Carolina. Against Missouri, he was nowhere to be found on the offensive end. He made his only field goal and missed all four of his foul shots.
Not surprisingly, the guy who draws comparisons from NBA scouts to Tyson Chandler was not brought to the media room afterward. But teammates Dakari Johnson and Andrew Harrison said that they’re not concerned about Cauley-Stein’s struggles, even pointing out their own issues.
Harrison scored a team-high 15 points against the Tigers, but the performance came after the talented sophomore guard had failed to score in double figures in five straight games.
”I mean, you’re going to have your up-and-down games, like myself,” Harrison said. ”I haven’t been playing good, either. Willie will be just fine.”
The coaching staff echoed that optimistic sentiments Friday.
”It just wasn’t one of his better games, but he’s playing at a high level and we’re not concerned at all,” Kentucky assistant John Robic said. ”We just got to get back to it today and put that one behind him.”
It helps that Cauley-Stein doesn’t have to carry the burden alone. Or at all.
Unlike most schools where he would be the featured attraction, Cauley-Stein is just one of a cadre of NBA-bound talents. If he has an off night, or two or three, then Johnson – a fellow 7-footer can step up. Or there’s 6-11 Karl-Anthony Towns and 6-10 Trey Lyles and 6-9 Marcus Lee, all of whom have the size and athleticism to assume over many of Cauley-Stein’s roles.
At least, that’s the case right now as the Wildcats are off to the third 20-0 start in school history.
But everything changes again come March, as the Wildcats know quite well.
The road to the Final Four is filled with dangerous opponents, and Kentucky just may need one of its best players to reappear if the Wildcats want to do one better than last season, when they fell to Connecticut in the national championship game.
”Every college player is the same,” Calipari said, explaining that even top prospects like Cauley-Stein will go through doldrums.
”The tough ones,” he added, ”will fight through it.”
AP Sports Writer Gary Graves contributed to this report.