Cauley-Stein gives Cats an energy boost in return from injury



By Les Johns | @KernelJohns

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UK freshman forward Willie Cauley-Stein hadn’t seen more than 15 minutes of action in a game since the Cats’ home win against Tennessee on Jan. 15.

He missed two and a half weeks of action after a having a minor procedure on his left knee.

Despite averaging 7.5 points and seven rebounds per game in the six games prior to the procedure, his absence may have gone slightly overlooked.

The first game out of the lineup, the Cats promptly traveled to Auburn and delivered their first knockout blow in the conference season, defeating the Tigers, 75-53.

Along the way, offensively the middle seemed less clogged. Sophomore forward Kyle Wiltjer regained his shooting stroke and an infinite amount of offensive confidence.

Some even suggested maybe the Cats played better without using Cauley-Stein in the lineup at the same time as freshman all-everything Nerlens Noel.

Cauley-Stein returned Saturday in College Station, Texas, as the Cats exacted revenge against the Aggies, but only played four sparing minutes.

“The last game, the only reason I didn’t play him in the second half is because of the way the game was going and I didn’t want Nerlens (Noel) out of the game,” Calipari said about Cauley-Stein’s playing time against Texas A&M.

The Cats were reminded Tuesday night what they were missing. They were missing Cauley-Stein’s hustle, intensity and versatility.

“Willie Cauley was unbelievable,” Calipari said. “And you say, what did he do? He just added energy.”

The Cats started hot, running out to a quick 10-2 lead in the first three minutes, but then floundered, eventually giving up the lead midway through the first half, at 18-17.

Cauley-Stein’s effort helped lead an 11-0 run for the Cats, who held on to a double-digit lead virtually the rest of the way of a 77-55 win over South Carolina.

He threw his body into a mix of players to tip a ball toward freshman guard Archie Goodwin for a fast break. Cauley-Stein converted an old-fashioned three-point play, and he also led the break for the Cats on a couple of occasions.

“He brings a lot of energy. He’s going to run the floor and play defense real hard,” sophomore guard Ryan Harrow said about Cauley-Stein’s return. “When he has his offensive game going it makes it easier on all of us.”

He tallied 22 minutes of action, scoring 13 points on efficient 5-of-7 shooting from the floor.

“Tonight, with him coming in and playing the way he did changed the whole game,” graduate student guard Julius Mays said. “Willie brings a different type of energy than any other player that we have. He changes the game for us both offensively and defensively.”

Cauley-Stein also nailed three of his five three-throw attempts. He also added six rebounds and two of the Cats’ nine blocked shots.

“He went after balls. He rebounded the ball,” Calipari said about Cauley-Stein’s performance.

Cauley-Stein said the injury dates all the way back to eighth-grade football season. He said that it was a loose piece of bone that would come up into his thigh and agitate him, sometimes shooting down into a joint area.

“It was a pain tolerance thing,” Cauley-Stein said, stating that he had always been able to play through it.

Cauley-Stein said that most of the time away from the court was spent lifting weights, and he feels stronger now in his upper body.

“(Strength and Conditioning Coach) Rock (Oliver) has been doing a good job rehabbing and working on getting me back ready to play again,” Cauley-Stein said.

From an effort and production standpoint, Cauley-Stein seemed back to his old form. He doesn’t quite see it that way.

“My lungs are still rusty,” Cauley-Stein said. “I was winded a little bit. Once I am running and in basketball shape I will be good.”