LEXINGTON — Sophomore center Willie Cauley-Stein claims he doesn’t know why he disappeared from relevance for a three-game stretch recently for the Kentucky Wildcats.
“I have no idea,” the 7-foot Cauley-Stein said Saturday after rejoining Planet Wildcat with eight points, six steals, six blocked shots and three rebounds in UK’s 79-54 shellacking of the Georgia Bulldogs. “I wasn’t really thinking I was in a slump until it stretched into three games. I felt like I was trying, but I was making a lot of mistakes.”
Through the first 14 games, Cauley-Stein was arguably Kentucky’s second best player, behind freshman forward Julius Randle. But in the three games coming into Saturday, Cauley-Stein suddenly looked a step slow — less like Nerlens Noel and Anthony Davis, and more like Rob Lock.
“I just got back to the roots of the game and just flying around contesting shots and running the floor,” Cauley-Stein said. “I had a really good couple days of practice, and I felt like my normal self. Other times at practice, I was just kind of out there going through the motions and getting other people shots. Today I was really juiced and ready to get back to producing.”
Cauley-Stein’s return to form against Georgia came as no surprise to Coach John Calipari.
“He has been unbelievable in practice,” said Calipari of Cauley-Stein after the 14th-ranked Wildcats improved to 15-4 overall and 5-1 in the Southeastern Conference. “He was in a totally different frame of mind, and he performed. Now, he was a little shaky at times out there, but I thought he played well — blocks, steals, moved his feet, made some baskets, two free throws — that’s who he is for us.”
“He has been really focused in practice because he didn’t play as well as he could have the last couple of games,” freshman guard Aaron Harrison said of Cauley-Stein. “He came out today and really showed it.”
“He’s a terrific player,” Georgia coach Mark Fox said of Cauley-Stein after his over-achieving Bulldogs fell to 10-8 and 4-2. “I don’t think he was slumping, I think it just comes with the territory. You’re not going to get as many opportunities when you have a balanced team like they do.”
To see more photos from the game, click here.
This was one of Kentucky’s better performances of the season. The Wildcats played well defensively throughout, and gained momentum offensively as the game wore on against a Georgia team that was minus two key guards due to injuries.
Leading 37-31 early in the second half, Kentucky used a 24-8 run to bury the offense-challenged Bulldogs.
The Wildcats shot 50 percent from the field on 29 of 58, and 80 percent at the free throw line on 16 of 20. They repeatedly beat the Bulldogs in transition, out-scoring the visitors 20-6 on fast break points. The Kentucky defense forced 20 Georgia turnovers, and turned that into a 19-6 advantage on points off turnovers.
“It comes with playing together,” said UK freshman swingman James Young, who scored 13 points. “We used to give a lot of baseline drives and let the guy drive right past us, but we’re getting better.”
The Bulldogs hit just 32.7 percent of their shots from the field, on 16 of 49, and they were just 18 of 28 at the free throw line.
“We just couldn’t slow them down enough to get back in it, and just couldn’t score enough today to hang in there and make it a threat,” Fox said.
Aaron Harrison led Kentucky in scoring with 15 points. Randle added 14 points and nine rebounds, and sophomore forward Alex Poythress was once again both efficient and effective, contributing 11 points and five rebounds.
“I think that’s a strength of their team is that they have a lot of guys who can finish plays,” Fox said of Kentucky. “You can’t just say you’re going to shut down one guy and really impact them like you can with some teams. Their balance makes them real difficult to defend.”
“We’re still not there,” Calipari said. “We got better. We had more energy off the ball, but we’re still a ways away.”
Calipari said it’s now a matter of adding mental discipline to the obvious physical skills of his players.
“That’s the next level of the process,” he said. “Get the players right, playing hard, thinking right, understanding their role and how they have to play for us to win.
“The next level is discipline, defensive and offensive discipline. That one is going to be a little longer for us to crack, but we’re getting better.”
The Wildcats are on the road for four of their next five games, starting Tuesday night at LSU (9 on ESPN). The lone home game the next two weeks is Feb. 4 vs. Ole Miss.