LEXINGTON - Willie Cauley-Stein has experienced many peaks and valleys in his first season with the Kentucky Wildcats.
Cauley-Stein hopes the Wildcats are turning the corner following an 85-55 rout of Mississippi State Wednesday night at Rupp Arena, giving Kentucky its third consecutive victory following back-to-back losses at Florida and Tennessee earlier this month.
“It's been a roller-coaster, an emotional roller-coaster,” he said. “It's all in our hands. We have the control over what our destiny is.”
Cauley-Stein has been having a big say in the team's success lately and continued his surge against the outmanned Bulldogs. The freshman forward had 12 points, pulled down six rebounds and recorded three blocked shots. He had 12 rebounds and seven blocks in the team's 90-83 overtime win over Missouri last weekend, serving notice to opponents the Cats aren't backing down in the absence of standout center Nerlens Noel.
“It was a fun game,” Cauley-Stein said afterward. “We just went through a lot of tough games (during ) the last three or four games. It's all fun for our team just to try and get ourselves back into a good rhythm. In the second half we could have easily shut it down and they could have gotten back in it and a dogfight the rest of the game, but that was it. We kept playing through (the entire game) and going hard.”
The contest also wasn't a letdown following last Saturday's 90-83 overtime win over Missouri. Cauley-Stein said the margin for error remained small, especially against the Bulldogs.
“There was no room for slack,” he said. “You've still got to take of business or they are liable to beat you. They're an SEC team an struggling with numbers, but they're still capable of beating you.”
Since Noel went down with a season-ending knee injury in a 69-52 setback at Florida on Feb. 12, Cauley-Stein has provided a big boost for the Cats in Noel's absence. In the past four games, Cauley-Stein has recorded 15 blocked shots, taking over the role vacated by Noel on the defensive end of the court. The absence of Noel still gives the team an “empty” feeling.”
“We're always going to have an empty feeling, but we're just coming together as a team now,” Cauley-Stein said. “The guys are starting to listen to what coach (Calipari) has to say and things are starting to fall into place.”
Kentucky coach John Calipari admits that the Wildcats aren't “the shot-blocking team we were,” but likes the way Cauley-Stein has been picking up the slack during the past two weeks.
“I thought Willie Cauley-Stein did some great things, blocking shots and dong the things he's doing,” Calipari said after the win over Mississippi State.
In addition to getting used to the absence of Noel, Cauley-Stein also is making an adjustment with his playing time. Since returning from minor knee surgery, Cauley-Stein is averaging more than 12 points per game and eight rebounds per contest.
“Coach just kept on saying you have to fight through it (and) when you hit the stretch, you have to play more,” Cauley-Stein said. “I'm just trying to train my lungs into going more and then sub myself out. It's a shared effort. Everybody has to do more than what they are doing.”
Cauley-Stein added the rest of the team isn't forcing the issue on the court, leading to better results on the scoreboard and inching the team closer to an NCAA bid regardless of what transpires during the final week of the regular-season.
“It's just playing ball, not x's and o's,” he said. “It's just setting screens and (moving) the ball then someone os going to be open.”
Cauley-Stein added the Cats are ready for back-to-back road contests, beginning with Saturday's game at Arkansas.
“We just have to play hard every minute we're out there,” he said. “When you're tired, you just have to sub yourself out.”Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times