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Willie Cauley-Stein's defense propels Kentucky past Kansas State

Willie Cauley-Stein's suffocating defense, including four blocks, helped Kentucky notch its first tournament win since 2012. (Jasen Vinlove/USA TODAY Sports)Willie Cauley-Stein's suffocating defense, including four steals and four blocks, helped Kentucky get its first tournament win since 2012. (Jasen Vinlove/USA TODAY Sports)

ST. LOUIS -- Freshman, freshman, freshman, freshman, freshman.

Smaller, smaller, smaller, smaller, smaller.

Maybe they're generalizations -- or simply relative, in the case of "small" -- but just a glance at the starting lineups before Friday night's Kentucky-Kansas State nightcap evoked them, big-time. Kentucky is young. Kansas State is, at least by comparison, smaller.

These facts could have been descriptors. For eighth-seeded Kentucky, young became an afterthought. For ninth-seeded Kansas State, though, the facts became a weakness. Physically, it simply couldn't hold up to the muscle and length Kentucky packs, not on the boards, not in the paint.

This game, a 56-49 Kentucky victory in the Midwest Region's Round of 64, wasn't made or broken by scoring. It was decided by length and by limbs, and in that department, the Wildcats in blue and white had one very visible advantage over those in black and purple, in the form of Willie Cauley-Stein.

Sure, Julius Randle and Aaron Harrison scored in double-digits for Kentucky, but after both teams left the court, the performance that lingered belonged to the sophomore forward.

Cauley-Stein is not easy to forget. He stands seven-feet tall and weighs 244 pounds, for starters. On Friday, he finished the night with just two points, and yet he was arguably still the most impactful Kentucky player on the court.

Case in point: When he guarded Kansas State's Thomas Gipson. Gipson is a forward. He's not some scrawny guard. He stands at 6-foot-7, and yet there's Cauley-Stein, sort of hovering over him like a preying mantis as he waits for the ball. It's as if Cauley-Stein sees the game from a whole different astroplane -- because he does.

There's a moment, too, when he's running alongside Kansas State guard Jevon Thomas. Granted, Thomas is just six feet tall, a full foot shorter than Cauley-Stein, but watch. Tilt your head a little for the comparison, and it'll strike you. Cauley-Stein's arms may be just as long as his opponent's legs. If not, it's close.

For those wanting more evidence, here's one last glimpse: Seven minutes into the second half, Kansas State's Nigel Johnson had just missed a three-pointer. The ball bounced errantly, and it looked like someone was going to have to hustle, except for there was Cauley-Stein -- or rather, there was his arm -- and there was the ball,  being swept with just a flick of the limb down the court. Hustle? Ha.

In the first half alone, the Kentucky forward logged four blocks -- up from his season average of three per game -- muscling away Kansas State's very real chance to advance to Sunday. Although he was held without a point until the second half, when his scoring drought ended, it was with a bang. Well, it would have been a bang, maybe, if it hadn't looked so easy. To dunk, he simply reached up, and, well, that was it.

In its first game on an NCAA tournament court since winning it all in 2012, Kentucky once again looked like it belonged. The roster may be close to brand-new, the players' birthdays creeping later into the 1990s, but it's not time to write off John Calipari and company just yet.

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