Willie Cauley-Stein was five minutes deep into his post-game interview, surrounded by reporters and videographers, when he finally asked in mock exasperation, “Aren’t we going to talk about basketball?”
No, a reporter playfully responded. Just hair and grooming.
The Wildcats had just dispatched a good Boise State team, holding the second-highest scoring team in the country to a scant 55 points (while scoring 70 themselves). Cauley-Stein had swatted away nine shots, and all anyone wanted to know, at first, was about his decision to go blonde.
He had tweeted a picture of it prior to the game, so everyone knew it was coming, but still, the 7-foot sophomore was the subject of hundreds of pre-game photos during warm-ups, by professional photographers and cell phone-wielding shutterbugs alike.
Comparisons ranged from Simon Phoenix, the uber-villain played by Wesley Snipes in the Sylvester Stallone movie, “Demolition Man,” to Gumby – the rubbery, green, stop-action animation star of the ‘60s whose ‘do, like Cauley-Stein’s, had a definitive slope.
“Boredom,” Cauley-Stein gave as the reason for the change. “You spend a lot of time in the dorm room, being on curfew all the time. It really gets you thinking a lot. You stare at the wall a lot and you get a crazy thought.”
Asked if it turned out the way he wanted it, Cauley-Stein shrugged. “Yeah,” he said. “You put blonde in your hair, it’s gonna turn blonde.”
His coach didn’t care. “I’m not the tattoo police, and I’m not the hair police,” John Calipari said after the game. But he did admit to telling his player that if he was going to draw that kind of attention to himself, he’d better be ready to play. He was.
And Calipari also had a hair comparison of his own. “There was a guy that used to do that to his hair. He also wore wedding dresses,” Calipari said. “But he killed you. He would shut you out and get every rebound, play 40 minutes. “
Cauley-Stein might not have rebounded like Dennis Rodman, pulling down just seven, but he blocked shots like Anthony Davis and Nerlens Noel, showing the potential Calipari had mentioned when the player first arrived as a multi-sport athlete from Kansas, intent on concentrating on basketball for the first time in his life.
He could be one of the best players that he ever coached, Calipari said back then and was reminded of those words after the win over the Broncos. Cauley-Stein is not quite there yet, he said, pointing to the physicality of the Baylor game, which Cauley-Stein didn’t handle very well. Once he does that, Calipari said, he will have arrived.
To get there, the sophomore will have to overcome the physical discomfort brought on by the sickle cell anemia trait he has to deal with from time to time. Cauley-Stein said it bothered him during the win over the Broncos, sometimes causing shortness of breath and pain in his chest.
He also had to overcome a Boise State team that often played four guards, executed the dribble-drive offense, at times, better than Kentucky did and, if not for some wide-open threes that didn’t drop, might have made the game a lot more interesting.
“They just run around,” Cauley-Stein said. “They have shooters and drivers so they put up so many points. We have to really make sure we are focused on what they are trying to do and what we are trying to do defensively.”
And whatever it was the Wildcats did to the Broncos in the second half, it worked. Boise State kept it close early in the game until UK slipped off to a 10-point halftime lead, and gradually extended the advantage after intermission.
“We kind of came apart a little bit and that’s something we’ve got to fix as a team,” BSU forward Ryan Watkins said. “We can’t be sped up like that. They sped us up and we got out of our rhythm.”
Boise State coach Leon Rice credited Kentucky’s length for making it so difficult on his smaller Broncos. “It was funny,” he said. “I was talking to a coach who played them and he said you need to simulate playing against a 7’1” guy who can move and block shots and I’m not sure I knew how to do that. You just can’t simulate their size in practice.
“They can make mistakes and then make up for them and that’s what they did a great job of tonight. With Cauley-Stein, you get to the rim and he blocks nine of them, and he alters probably 10 more of them.”
And then Rice said something about his own players that, for all the world, sounded as though it was scripted by John Calipari: “You know, these guys are competitive guys and they want to do it, but they got away from doing it together and tried to make some plays on their own. It’s something that we can learn from and when you play a team that is this athletic, isolations don’t work and one-on-one doesn’t work. We have to beat them with our ball movement and player movement.”
It’s precisely what Calipari has preached to all of his young teams at Kentucky, and something he talked about again after the win over BSU – teamwork. He saw a bit more during the win, and he liked it. He saw his players talking more to each other on the court, in the huddle, on the bench – and, he said, they were “touching.”
“You touch and talk,” Calipari said, referring to pats on the back, hand slaps and high fives . “That's how you start becoming a team and coming together. Again, you can't be into your own thing. It's stuff that we have to teach.”
Lessons learned, at least on this night in the classroom that is Rupp Arena. And one of John Calipari’s more avid students is the guy who now looks like Simon Phoenix. Or Gumby.