Cauley-Stein assumes a leading role

By Les Johns | @KernelJohns

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UK head coach John Calipari knows his team will need more and more of Willie Cauley-Stein to finish this season strong.

No individual player can replace what Nerlens Noel meant to the Cats this season.

The rebounds, points and blocks were just part of what made Noel so valuable. His work ethic, attitude and hustle put him at over-the-top levels of indispensible.

Yet the Cats have had to move on with him on the sidelines because of a torn ACL.

So, the twin towers became a solo act.

While Cauley-Stein was cautioned that he alone was not responsible for carrying the entire load of Noel’s absence, he knew his play would be much more important.

“I knew that in Florida when he went down,” Cauley-Stein said. “But it’s a shared effort. Everybody has to do more than what they were doing.”

Nobody knows how big the loss of Noel was to the team more than Cauley-Stein.

“It’s still empty. We’re always going to have that empty feeling,” Cauley-Stein said. “We’re just coming together as a team right now. Guys are finally listening to what coach is saying and it is falling into place.”

Cauley-Stein also had some injury issues this season, having a minor procedure on his left knee in mid-January.

He missed four games and had to work to regain his optimum level of conditioning.

Prior to the Cats’ current three-game winning streak, Cauley-Stein had yet to play more than 30 minutes in a game.

He (and the Cats) bottomed out against Tennessee in Knoxville two weeks ago. He played 23 frustrating minutes, scoring two points, grabbing two rebounds and turning the ball over four times.

“It been an emotional roller coaster,” Cauley-Stein said. “Now it is time to start climbing.”

The past three games, he has averaged 33 minutes per game (the game Saturday against Missouri did go to overtime). In those three games, Cauley-Stein is averaging 13 points, 8.3 rebounds and 4.3 blocks per game. Cauley-Stein is shooting 17-of-24 for 70.8 percent from the field during that stretch.

Calipari also is crediting Cauley-Stein at least partially for others taking charge of their responsibilities.

“I think Willie’s comment is the mantra we’re rolling with right now: ‘I’m going to do my job; you do your job. Do what you’re supposed to do,’ ” Calipari said. “They’re holding each other accountable more.”

Did Cauley-Stein really say that?

“I don’t know where that started,” Cauley-Stein said about the quote Calipari attributes to him. “I said something similar to that, not exactly like that. He’s branded it on me, so I guess I’ll just run with it.”

With just rehabbing from injury himself, Cauley-Stein had doubts about his conditioning in the post-Noel days.

Cauley-Stein is typically one of the first Cats to sub himself out when fatigued, but Calipari wants him to work through it and play for longer stretches.

“Coach just kept on saying that you have to fight through it, when we hit the stretch you have to play more,” Cauley-Stein said. “I’m trying to train my lungs into going more and then sub myself out.”

Wednesday night in the Cats’ 30-point win against Mississippi State at Rupp Arena, Cauley-Stein faced a squad that didn’t have a starter taller than 6-foot-9.

He took advantage of the situation, blocking and altering several Bulldog shots and hitting six of his seven shots down low.

“I thought Willie Cauley-Stein did some great things, blocking shots and doing the things he’s doing,” Calipari said.

Cauley-Stein can’t completely replace the emotion and the production gap left by the loss of Noel.

He does, however, have to continue to provide additional meaningful minutes down the stretch of this season for the Cats to have any hope of advancing, or even appearing, in the NCAA Tournament.

“It was a fun game,” Cauley-Stein said about the team’s effort against Mississippi State. “It’s all fun for our team just to try and get ourselves back into a good rhythm.”

He said the team has to stay focused as it takes its show on the road the next two games.

“Gotta ball,” Cauley-Stein said. “Just play hard every minute you are out there.”