INDIANAPOLIS—In the hotel room late Thursday night were some of Kentucky’s elder statesmen, such as they are: Alex Poythress, the injured junior forward; Willie Cauley-Stein, the All-America junior who defies position-specific labels; and the Harrison twins, just sophomores on the eligibility meter but two of the more well-worn souls on the team. Assistant coach Kenny Payne joined them, too, and the group told stories and jokes and laughed, which prompted a reflective moment for the contemplative Cauley-Stein.
“Dude,” he told Poythress, “I’m going to miss this.”
That Cauley-Stein would get wistful about teammates and friends is no surprise. But you’d also figure he was tired of sitting around and talking at Final Fours.
It helped that far more was expected of him in the following days. A year earlier, an ankle injury and the body art snaking around his arms and neck rendered Cauley-Stein the most decorated cheerleader in the national semifinals and final at AT&T Stadium. Heading into Saturday’s titanic clash with Wisconsin, his situation has gone from "lookout" to "look out." The defensive prowess and versatility of the 7-footer might be the Wildcats’ best antidote for one of the most efficient offenses in recent memory.
Will Cauley-Stein guard Sam Dekker, the 6’9” forward who has amassed the second-most points (87) in the NCAA tournament? Or will he mark Frank Kaminsky, who has the most NCAA tournament points (91) and the most national player of the year awards (two) of anyone at Lucas Oil Stadium? The mere fact that the question can be asked is relief for Kentucky and reinvigorating for Cauley-Stein.
“It was just like being a spectator,” he said of his 2014 Final Four experience. “To know that you don’t have any influence in the outcome, that you can’t affect the game in any way—this year is just a lot different. I now have an opportunity to affect that game, playing in something that few people get to play in.”
Affect it he shall, one way or another. His defensive rating (79.1) trails only teammate Karl-Anthony Towns (77.0) nationally, and Cauley-Stein’s 3.4 defensive Win Shares leads the country. His block percentage is down from last season (12.3 to 7.1 this year) but that may be a function of Kentucky deploying more big men and trusting Cauley-Stein to be an outsize defensive mismatch on the perimeter. Indeed, one of the standout scenes of Kentucky’s Elite Eight escape against Notre Dame was Cauley-Stein trailing 6’5” fellow All-America Jerian Grant the length of the court as the Irish star dribbled ahead to attempt a game-winning three-pointer at the buzzer.
Given the Badgers’ size, he shouldn’t face such a small task for the better part of Saturday night. But having any on-court assignment stokes the Wildcats’ most distinguished defender.
“This is Willie we’re talking about, so he enjoys anything he’s doing right now,” Kentucky forward Marcus Lee said. “He enjoyed being there last year and he’s enjoying this even more this year. I feel like he can’t wait to play and get things done.”
The ankle issue effectively knocked Cauley-Stein out of the last four games of Kentucky’s 2014 tournament run and ultimately required offseason surgery.
That brought about some dueling emotions at last year’s Final Four: Satisfaction for a team on the brink of a championship, but also some angst at being unable to contribute to that push at all. To combat the frustrations of being inactive on the floor last March and April, Cauley-Stein did what he could to be involved in all other areas.
“I stayed in Marcus Lee’s ear, or Alex’s—this is what I see on the floor, take it or leave it,” Cauley-Stein said. “I kind of felt like a player-coach. When Alex says something to me off the bench now, he’s got more of a connection to you. Coach [John Calipari] is riding you or just yelling, but if Alex comes over, he’s like this is what I see. It’s probably the same thing that coach is telling you, but it’s just in a different manner, you’re just going to take it different. That’s why I tried to do last year.”
Said Lee: “If he was frustrated, he hid it really well. He just got lost in his team. He was always in my ear, trying to help figure things out. He was like someone who could really understand the game that could talk to us and help us out. He was always there.”
In spirit, yes. The injury absence and the inability to contribute physically during last year’s Final Four, though, drove Cauley-Stein to return to campus as much as anything.
"He wanted to come back and experience this,” Kentucky center Dakari Johnson said.
This week, Cauley-Stein demurred when asked how much of a difference he might have made in the national championship game loss to Connecticut.
“I’m not a fortune teller, I can’t really tell you on that,” Cauley-Stein said, but he would have preferred that it wasn’t a matter of hypotheticals.
A fair guess? Yes, he would have helped. In the longer view, the injury created a player catalyzed by the feeling of unfinished business, of something to prove. Cauley-Stein was the SEC player of the year, and he earned a spot on All-America teams, and he nevertheless used real or perceived slights to get him there.
“I think I just started playing with more confidence,” he said. “The chip comes from people saying I’m not good enough, or I can’t score, or I’m not a real basketball player. I don’t know how you can be an All-American in this country and not be a good basketball player. You look at that stuff and you just laugh at it. You’re the one that goes through all the work, you’re the one that puts in all the time. Nobody else can tell you what you are.”
When he met with former Kentucky star Anthony Davis in the offseason, Cauley-Stein was struck by Davis’s mindset. As pleasant as Davis was in quiet moments, everything became personal when he took the floor. When it was time to chat, the New Orleans Pelicans star was affable and amenable. When it was time to play, Cauley-Stein observed, Davis was trying to rip your heart out.
If he wasn’t quite as cynical in his approach this season, Cauley-Stein crafted a clear sense of purpose. He’d use any criticisms as kindling. He’d use the absence in last year’s Final Four as a reminder of what could be. And he’d get back to where he is Saturday, primed to leave the talking to everyone else this time.
“It doesn’t matter what anyone else thinks,” Cauley-Stein said. “You know what you’ve done and what you’ve been through to get to where you are.”