Cauley-Stein gets crack at Wisconsin


Willie Cauley-Stein of the Kentucky Wildcats shoots over the Notre Dame defense during first half of the Elite 8 of the 2015 NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament against the Notre Dame Fighting Irish at Quicken Loans Arena on Saturday, March 28, 2015 in Cleveland , OH. Photo by Jonathan Krueger

By Kevin Erpenbeck

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In last year’s Final Four, UK forward Willie Cauley-Stein was forced to watch his team play Wisconsin from the bench, unable to contribute to the game because of an injury he suffered the week before.

Instead, the then-sophomore recorded his memories of the game (and the Cats’ celebration after they beat the Badgers) through a camcorder, affectionately called the “Willie Cam.” This year, Cauley-Stein will take the court and create his own memories against Wisconsin in the rematch.

And his teammates couldn’t be more excited to have him back for the penultimate game of the NCAA Tournament.

“It’s going to be great. He matches up well with the guys they have on the floor,” sophomore center Dakari Johnson said of the 7-footer. “It gives us just another weapon that we didn’t have last year.”

Cauley-Stein has been a force in the paint this season, scoring an average of nine points a game and collecting a near team-high 6.5 rebounds each match (fellow bigman Karl-Anthony Towns leads the statistic with 6.6). The forward has also made a habit of performing high-flying, highlight-reel dunks over several opposing players who have dared to challenge him.

But perhaps what makes the lone non-McDonalds All-American among UK’s list of top starting players an even bigger focal point is his stingy defense. Cauley-Stein has blocked 65 opposing shots this season, second only to Towns’ 87 rejections.

His defensive prowess has earned him SEC Defensive Player of the Year honors and made him UK’s 25th First Team All-American. Cauley-Stein has also been nominated for several National Player of the Year awards, including the Naismith Trophy, which will be decided at the end of the season.

Towns has lauded Cauley-Stein’s skills on defense all season, giving credit to his blocking partner for everything he has learned about playing in a UK “high-energy” defense. Sophomore guard Aaron Harrison also knows the sheer significance that Cauley-Stein has played in the Cats’ undefeated season.

“Having Willie on the floor is obviously a huge help,” Harrison said. “He’s probably the best defender I’ve ever seen in person. He’s a big help.”

Wisconsin’s Frank Kaminsky will more than likely be the guy head coach Bo Ryan chooses to oppose Cauley-Stein in Saturday’s match, as he too stands at 7-foot-0.

“He changes the game in so many ways. You gotta know where he is on the court at all times,” Kaminsky said of the UK forward. “He’s that good.”

For Cauley-Stein, being able to finally play in the Final Four is like living a childhood dream.

“It’s just crazy to think about the last three years of losing first round in the NIT against Robert Morris, coming back and finding a way to get back to a title game, coming up short, having a chance to come back and do it again,” Cauley-Stein said. “I’m super excited to play. It is definitely a dream and a blessing to be here.”