UK Preview: Willie Cauley-Stein likes being the underdog for once

SportsBasketballFootballBaseballKentucky WildcatsWill ShieldsJohn Calipari

He’s part of the nation’s No. 1 recruiting class at Kentucky, yet center Willie Cauley-Stein knows he is not perceived as being the same type talent as classmates Nerlens Noel, Archie Goodwin and Alex Poythress.

Guess what? That perception suits him just fine.

“I love that I am under the radar. I have always been that person who has stuck out. Now that I am not, I¿kind of get to sit back and watch everybody else. I am not the person that sticks out. And I get to be the underdog for once. That is good. I love it,” Cauley-Stein said.

Kentucky coach John Calipari sold the 6-foot-11, athletic Cauley-Stein on coming to UK based on the potential he had.

“He (is) still saying every time I see him, ‘You don’t know how good you will be.’ I haven’t practiced as much as I am going to or hit the weights like I will. He’s always, like, telling me I won’t know how good I can be. That stuck in my head when he said it the first time and I knew the coaches were real good at what they do, and then watching Anthony Davis, you kind of, like, think I could be that guy. Embrace it, too,” Cauley-Stein said.

Calipari spent most of the summer touting Cauley-Stein’s potential and says he has been the most pleasant surprise of the new players.

“First of all, I¿never saw him play a high school basketball game. I saw him play football a bunch. I went to the high school and he had a tennis racquet. We are walking around and I said, ‘Kid, do you ever play basketball. Do you ever think about that sport?’ He is a kid that would play wiffle ball,” Calipari said. “I told him when I recruited him he had no idea how good he could become.

“He and I were sitting in the lodge the other day and I said, ‘Are you kind of amazed (at what has happened with your skills and strength)?’ and he said, ‘Yeah.’ I said, ‘You are better than you thought, aren’t you?’ He said, ‘Yeah.’ He has taken on a sport for the first time where he is really focused on this sport. He has gained 20, 25 pounds. His skill set has absolutely improved. He’s fast, nimble. You see him on the football tapes.

“He gained ground on Nerlens because (Noel) was not here for those eight weeks of conditioning, weight training and 16-hour workouts (this summer). That put him on a different level than Nerlens. I am good with that, because now when Nerlens catches up you will see improvement in his game.” analyst Matt Kamalsky isn’t sure Cauley-Stein is the unknown that Calipari is touting him as being.

“Calipari's words certainly don't hurt, but I think we've moved well past the point where you can come to UK under scholarship and be an under-the-radar NBA prospect,” Kamalsky said.

“The question most evaluators had about Willie Cauley wasn't so much if, but when he would begin to use his size and mobility to be a consistent presence on both ends of the floor. He's a huge target at the rim, and will be an effective finisher. The keys to how he is perceived at year's end will be his development as a post-up threat offensively and his defensive fundamentals.”

Cauley-Stein admits he knew little about Kentucky’s tradition when he signed with the Wildcats.

“I knew nothing. Absolutely nothing. I only knew they were in the tournament every year, and deep in the tournament,” he said, verifying that his knowledge of Kentucky basketball went back only to the start of the Calipari era.

However, he seems to have embraced everything about UK basketball from the extra work to bonding with teammates to enjoying the attention from Big Blue fans.

“You have to have fun with it. If you are scared to do it, you are going to struggle with it. But if you kind of embrace it like the fans are going to be crazy, it’s great,” said Cauley-Stein, who came to UK’s 2011 Big Blue Madness and enjoyed meeting John Wall. “Personally, I can’t wait for that, because it just gets you going. When the fans are into it and it is crazy, your adrenaline starts pumping and you don’t even realize it or know what you are doing. You are out there going 100 percent and going crazy.

“If you don’t embrace things, life is not going to be that interesting for you. You can’t just sit back and be like, ‘I really don’t want to do that.’ Just like conditioning. You wake up in the morning and you are like, ‘Oh, man, we have conditioning today.’ You dread it all day, it is going to be worse. You get in here and you are slow and don’t want to do it. If you wake up and it’s like, ‘Got conditioning today,’ you kind of embrace it. Get it done and it is only 20 minutes of your day. Have fun with it, and it is not bad.”

Perhaps that’s why he’s at Kentucky, because he liked Calipari’s no-nonsense approach to recruiting.

“He didn’t try to (lie to) me (during recruiting), and I don’t feel like he did that. He told me this was going to happen and I am not changing. He told me a lot of guys will (lie to) you during the whole process,” Cauley-Stein said. “They are nice, but once they have got you and you sign that letter (of intent), they change.

“He told you what it was going to be like.¿He said it was hard to play here and a lot of guys can’t do it, but if you want to get better and play against the best, you will have no problem. So you kind of embrace that.”

The talented freshman grew up playing different sports and even played football in his senior year. He didn’t want to concentrate on just one sport, but now he knows that being all-in for basketball will let him improve rapidly.

“That is definitely going to happen when you start practicing on one thing. Didn’t touch a basketball through football season, then you touch a basketball, then you stop playing and are playing baseball or running track. When you are doing basketball all year ’round, your skills are going to elevate,” he said. “I have been fast since I was young. I remember, like, in grade school, junior high, I was faster than everybody. My brother is four years older than me, and I was, like, always running with his group of friends, always running away from them or something. I am fast, though.”

He moved from Spearville,¿Kan., where he was living with his grandparents, to Kansas City, Kan., after his sophomore year to live with former Kansas City Chief and Pro Bowl lineman Will Shields and his family after becoming friends with Shavon Shields — who now plays at Nebraska — during AAU¿play.

He says that move not only made him “grow up and mature,” but it also is probably the reason he’s at Kentucky, because he improved academically.

“Grades there were a big thing, so you got more responsibility with that. I finally got a sense of what I wanted to do in life. I remember that we had a lot of talks about what is the ultimate goal you want to do in life and the path you are going to take to make it happen,” Cauley-Stein said. “That is when basketball kind of got serious for me.

“Before I played track, baseball, football.¿It was kind of like high school, whatever season it was, I was all for that season.¿It was different when I started playing competitive AAU basketball and stuff. Then basketball was more all year ’round, and it kind of set in and you grew up and knew if this is the path I was going to take, I¿had to start doing it every day.”

But he did play football again in his senior year after having to sit out his junior season as a transfer. He had played eight-man football before, but he became a big-time wide receiver and even played some defensive back.

‘A lot of people when I said I was going to play football said like, ‘I don’t think that is a good idea ... blah, blah, blah, you can get hurt.’ I can get hurt walking down the street,” he said. “If you don’t have that in your mind, you are not going to get hurt. If you have that in your mind and are trying to piddle around everything, that is when you get injured and stuff. I just kind of wiped it from my mind and did what I wanted to do.”

So does that mean he’s a physical player on the basketball court?

“It is a different kind of contact. (In)¿football you have the pads on and you want to hit somebody,” he said. “One of my biggest things was I loved playing defense. In basketball, it is just different. You are not looking for the same kind of contact. In football, you can brace yourself (if) you are going to get hit. In basketball, you are not expecting to get hit that much. It is just a different feel.”

Cauley-Stein actually started his football career as a quarterback.

“That is definitely true. I didn’t start playing until fourth grade, I think. Until then I would always play baseball and did until high school and was a pitcher,” he said. “I was out in the front yard with my grandpa throwing all the time, so I had a pretty good arm.¿My brother one year, who was four years older than me, he played baseball, and one of the traveling baseball teams he played on made a football team, too.

“Going to their practices as a little kid, you got intrigued. It was a new sport. You had heard about it, but never really played it as a little kid even in the front yard. Once he started playing, we bought a football, started throwing it, and you kind of got a feel for it. It just escalated from there and I really liked it. I loved playing my senior year, but now it is all about basketball for me and Kentucky.”

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