Cauley-Stein’s improvement crucial for the Cats

Kentucky center Willie Cauley-Stein takes a shot over the Florida defense during the second half of the University of Kentucky Men’s Basketball game versus University of Florida basketball game at O’Connell Center in Gainesville, Fl., on Saturday, February 7, 2015. Photo by Jonathan Krueger

By Kevin Erpenbeck

[email protected]

The UK Basketball team (25-0) escaped the Lexington snow storm by arriving early in Knoxville, Tenn., in preparation to face the Volunteers on Tuesday.

The decision to leave a day early for the road game was made after Deputy Director of Athletics DeWayne Peevy and Associate Athletics Director of Basketball Operations Chris Woolard spoke with head coach John Calipari about what the best options for travel was for the team. Calipari was still in New York at the time, attending the 2015 NBA All-Star Game, and flew in to Knoxville from there.

While the snow has caused major disruptions for many Lexington citizens, it has had little-to-no effect on the Cats’ mentality in facing a Tennessee team that is looking to become the first team to defeat UK this season, said associate head coach Kenny Payne.

“No big deal,” Payne said of the players’ thoughts on leaving early. “We’ll get prepared for a very good team that’s going to play out of their minds. That’s what we face every game.”

But Payne rethought the circumstances when asked about how the weather would affect the travel plans for UK fans heading to Tennessee. “We need our fans,” Payne said with a smile. “That’s a big part of us on the road.”

On Saturday, UK cruised by South Carolina 77-43 a day after Calipari spoke about the team needing to focus on “winning time,” stretching a 13-point lead over opponents to 20. The Cats led 43-18 at halftime and were up by 30-plus points for nearly 10 minutes of play in the second half.

A big contributor to UK’s stellar performance was the improvement of forward Willie Cauley-Stein. The 7-foot junior had been struggling since late December, scoring in double figures only twice in 11 games and admitting that he wasn’t having as much fun playing during that time.

But in his last three games, Cauley-Stein played with a resurgence of energy, performing high-flying dunks, recording double-digit points in all three games and picking up 19 total rebounds.

Payne said the reemergence of Cauley-Stein’s dominant form was thanks to a conversation the junior had with a former UK big man.

“Sharing a little time with Anthony Davis has helped him,” Payne said. “Anthony basically talked to him about the mental preparation to be great. Willie wants to do what Anthony is doing (in the NBA), so why not hear it from him?”

Payne added that the Cats will need Cauley-Stein to continue his aggressive mentality in games if they want to stay great down the stretch, including against Tennessee.

“Willie’s issue isn’t anything physical. It’s all mental,” Payne said. “When Willie Cauley plays instinctively and strong, he’s as good as there is in the country. That’s it.”

A win against the Volunteers would give UK the best start it’s ever had in program history.