By Ashley Scoby
From a small town in Kansas, to being disappointed in a 38-1 season at one of the most storied college basketball programs in history, Willie Cauley-Stein has come a long way.
Plenty has been made of Cauley-Stein’s basketball development (John Calipari swears he watched the 7-footer only score two points in an AAU game long ago, although Cauley-Stein denies it). But it’s a cruel twist of fate that after three years of an upward arc, Cauley-Stein really did only score two points in what he admitted was “probably” his last game at Kentucky, a national semifinal loss to Wisconsin.
His stat line against the Badgers Saturday in a game that marred a perfect season included two points (off 1-4 shooting), five rebounds, two blocks, an assist and a steal in 33 minutes.
“I mean, that’s gonna probably eat at me for the rest of my life, just to know that I have so much more I could have gave, and change the outcome of the game, but I just didn’t do it,” he said. “That’s really going to kill me on the inside.”
Cauley-Stein’s story has been a fascinating one. He started out as Willie Cauley, the ridiculously athletic high school basketball and football player, who was only rated as the 40th best player in the nation coming out of high school. He grew up in Kansas, largely raised by his grandparents. His love for the game was questioned by many.
But he came to Kentucky, adding “Stein” to the end of his last name to honor his grandparents and mother – the family that helped shape him into someone who could handle the Kentucky pressure-cooker. Calipari started a private book club between he and his 7-footer once he got to campus, helping Cauley-Stein appreciate the written word to complement his understanding of basketball.
“I just became a man,” Cauley-Stein said. “I think I came in as a high school kid not really thinking that he should belong there, coming from my background.”
A lifetime doodler, he became an art studio major at UK. Getting tattooed was an easy way to express his artistic side, and more and more popped up throughout his three years at Kentucky. And as the artwork on his body blossomed, so too did the art that was his movement on the court. In three years he transformed himself from a prospect that many doubted, into a consensus All-American, well-regarded as one of the best defensive players in the country.
After a freshman season that included a first-round NIT loss, Cauley-Stein returned to Lexington to lead a turnaround that ended in last year’s national championship game. He came back again for his third season, because something was “missing” for him after that title game loss, especially since an ankle injury kept him from actually playing in the Final Four.
Now, the hole that wasn’t plugged by a national championship is still there for the player who came back to fill it. And although he says he’s not “100 percent” set on declaring for the NBA draft, Cauley-Stein still said that putting himself through another re-loading process was something he didn’t want to repeat.
“You’re gonna have to build a whole ‘nother thing, and to go through that is difficult,” he said. “When the guys come back, you’ve already done it once. It’s easier; it’s like you don’t have to learn a lot of things. … Our practices were so easy but hard at the same time because it wasn’t a big mental thing on you – it’s more playing and making you better. I just don’t believe that there’s going to be another team like how we are.”
Questions remain about how well Cauley-Stein’s game will translate to the next level; his offensive ability still undoubtedly has holes. But the havoc he can wreak defensively on multiple positions on the court has shaped him into one of the better players in the country.
And his personality is, without fail, one of the most entertaining at Kentucky in recent memory. His candidness and thoughtfulness during interviews have been appreciated by media and fans alike, as he’s waxed poetic on anything from superheroes to his wardrobe choices.
We all may be seeing the end of the Willie Cauley-Stein era at Kentucky, but his impact is unforgotten.
“One of my friends hit me in a text message saying that back in my hometown that I’m a hero,” he said after the Wisconsin loss. “You just don’t realize that type of stuff. You don’t realize the impact you have on people – all for just playing with a ball. You just learn that it’s bigger than basketball. You just grow into it, that you can be inspiring to people and that’s probably the biggest thing that happened to me is I know that I can change people’s lives.”
Ashley Scoby is a senior journalism major at the University of Kentucky and a KyForward sports writer. She has reported on the Wildcats for wildcathoops.com, vaughtsviews.com andkysportsreport.com as well as for newspapers in Danville and Glasgow. She will begin a summer internship with Sports Illustrated magazine in New York in June.
Courtesy of KyForward