By Nick Gray
Of all the shot-blocking and highlight-making post players in John Calipari’s tenure as head coach at UK, it’s rare to see block totals as high as sophomore forward Willie Cauley-Stein’s last three games.
The 7-foot forward from Olathe, Kan., followed a four-block effort against Cleveland State University on Nov. 25 with seven blocks against Eastern Michigan University two days later. Last Sunday against Providence College, Cauley-Stein blocked nine more shots, which tied Andre Riddick and Sam Bowie for second in UK history on the single-game blocks list.
Only Nerlens Noel has blocked more than 20 shots in three games in UK history since the statistic began to be recorded in 1978. Noel followed 14 total blocks against Louisiana State University and the University of Alabama with 12 blocks in a win against the University of Mississippi.
“In the past it was like I was hesitant on going (up to block shots),” Cauley-Stein said after Sunday’s performance. “Now I’m just going. Like Coach (Calipari) said, ‘Don’t even worry about it. Try to go block every ball.’ So that’s what my game plan is coming into the game: just go try to block everything.”
Cauley-Stein’s spike in production can be attributed to his new mentality along with his increased minutes on the court.
Over the last three games, Cauley-Stein has averaged over 30 minutes per game.
“He’s playing harder, longer,” Calipari said Sunday. “He’s never played this many minutes, and he never played that hard this many minutes. But he’s practicing that way. He’s pushing himself, he’s pushing through comfort levels, and that’s what I’m trying to get all these guys to do.”
An analysis at Cauley-Stein’s three-game defensive performance shows just how rare the feat of 20 blocks in three games is, not only at UK but also in major college basketball.
The most blocks former UK star Anthony Davis recorded in a three-game span was 19. Davis holds the NCAA record for most blocked shots in a single season by a freshman. DeMarcus Cousins did not reach that mark in his only season in Lexington.
Patrick Patterson had 13 blocks in the same time span in the 2008-09 season.
Former University of Connecticut center Hasheem Thabeet blocked 20 shots in the first three games of his sophomore season in 2006-07, but Thabeet averaged 7.3 points per game during the span while Cauley-Stein scored 13 points per game in his three-game segment.
Duke center Shelden Williams averaged three or more blocks in his last two seasons from 2003-04 to 2004-05, but did not reach Cauley-Stein’s three-game mark.
Cauley-Stein’s production helped him regain his starting position on Sunday after he started the previous four games on the bench.
“Now he knows he can go get it,” Calipari said. “And then the second thing is, we’re doing a better job if he does leave to block out, cracking down and taking his man. But to have nine blocks in a game like this? Big time.”