Willie Cauley-Stein knew early Saturday that he was going to have a good game against Georgia. How early?
“When I woke up this morning,” he said. Before he wiped the sleep out of his eyes, he knew he was back.
“I had a really good couple days of practice, and I felt like my normal self,” he said. “The other times in practice, I was just kind of out there going through the motions. This time I was actually juiced and ready to get back to producing.”
And produce he did, creating a stat line stuffed with good things from both ends of the floor: Eight points, six blocks, six steals; only three rebounds but they were all scraped from the offensive glass.
And because Old Willie returned, his teammates were able to produce one of their best overall efforts of the season in the 79-54 destruction of a Bulldog team that previously had lost only to Florida in the Southeastern Conference.
“We’re a lot better” with Old Willie, according to James Young. “We have double-digit leads when he’s doing his thing. When he picks it up, we all pick it up on defense and that’s what wins games.”
Aaron Harrison likes the defensive cushion Old Willie provides. “We can afford to give up a lot more defensive mistakes,” Harrison said. “He helps us out.”
What he’s talking about is gambling on defense – the kind John Wall and Eric Bledsoe could afford to do, knowing Demarcus Cousins and Patrick Patterson lay in wait for any ballhandler who might slip past the UK guards into the paint.
Kentucky’s perimeter players had a similar advantage two seasons back with Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist on the back line. Last year, Nerlens Noel and Cauley-Stein himself at times would swat away shots launched by opponents who snuck past perimeter defenders.
Thanks in part to Old Willie hanging around in the paint against the Dawgs, the Cats could step up their defensive pressure, forcing 20 turnovers by a Georgia team that was hampered by the loss of veteran Kenny Gaines to an injury.
“I just got back to the roots of the game,” Cauley-Stein said, “flying around, contesting shots, running the floor.”
And it worked. The Wildcats erased an early Georgia lead and with the score 12-10 Kentucky, the Cats exploded on a 13-0 run, taking a 25-10 advantage. The Bulldogs managed to cut it to 37-31 early in the second half, but runs of of 7-0, 5-0, and 12-0 salted it away for Kentucky on a day when salt, especially the kind you find on the highways, is precious.
Cauley-Stein was a catalyst, shaking off whatever struggles had gripped his game. “I wasn’t thinking it was a slump until three games in and everybody was like, ‘He’s in a slump,’ “ Cauley-Stein said. “So I started thinking, ‘Maybe I am in a slump.’ “
Believe it or not, what actually helped him (for once), was Twitter. He had vowed to stay off social media sites, but Cauley-Stein admitted that he peeked – and he liked what he saw.
“ I heard a lot of positive things,” he said. “I was touched by it because last year if that was happening, you were getting murdered because you were losing. It was good our fans are here to pick us up.”
His teammates had given him a wide berth during his down period, unsure of exactly what they should say to him.
“We know we all have slumps,” Aaron Harrison said. “We weren’t on him. We knew Willie’d come back.”
“You really try to stay away from him and let him get his head together,” said Young. Obviously, he did. Numbers, especially the kind Cauley-Stein posted Saturday afternoon, don’t lie.
“We weren’t surprised,” Aaron Harrison said. “We knew Willie was going to come back strong. We were expecting that.”
Cauley-Stein said he was expecting it as well, but if it hadn’t happened today, he still would have spent his time on the bench, applauding the efforts of his teammates.
“ I’ll still cheer on the team if I’m playing bad,” he said. “That’s what we do. You’re your brother’s keeper. If I’m playing bad and Dakari (Johnson) is playing good, I’m telling coach, ‘You gotta play him. He’s balling right now.’ The last couple games, he’s been balling and I’m happy for him.”
Johnson had an uneven effort Saturday, with just one rebound, three points and two blocked shots in 10 minutes. But it didn’t matter. Old Willie was back.
He wore the headband again, beneath his normal head of brown hair. The blond look, apparently, is a thing of the past – no matter how well he played with the lemon-colored locks. Some had urged him to reach for the peroxide again, but…
“I was like, no,” he said. “I can’t go back.”
The guess here is that if he keeps putting up Old Willie stat lines, the way he did in the victory over Georgia, the Big Blue Nation wouldn’t care if Cauley-Stein shaved his head – as long as his team keeps winning.
(Dick Gabriel is in his 25th season with the UK TV and Radio Networks, and can be heard on the Big Blue Insider Monday through Friday from 6-8 p.m. ET on 630 WLAP-AM and wlap.com.)