On Tuesday night, the University of Kentucky Wildcats defeated the Ole Miss Rebels 80-64 at Rupp Arena, bringing head coach John Calipari’s record at Rupp to an absurd 81-2 in his nearly five years in Lexington. With his youngest Kentucky team ever (81% of the team’s scoring is from first year players) struggling a bit to come together this season, Calipari has been looking for signs that this team finally “gets it.” As a follow up to the victory against Missouri on Saturday, the Cats had an opportunity to show Calipari, the Big Blue Nation and themselves that they finally understand what it takes to play basketball at an elite level. And if this team is going to be elite, then sophomore Willie Cauley-Stein was going to have to work himself out of his mini-slump. And WCS certainly delivered.
Before his recent struggles, Cauley-Stein was on pace with Anthony Davis’ single season block record. He was patrolling the paint, rebounding and blocking shots. When the Cats entered conference play, he seemed to have faded into the background. Whether it was something off the court, something physical or whatever the case was, when the Cats were looking for leadership, Willie was not there. Even in the victory over the Tigers on Saturday, he had more fouls than points and, from a distance, looked mentally out of the game, especially when the CBS cameras caught him arguing with assistant coach Kenny Payne. The Big Blue Nation wondered: What happened to Willie Cauley-Stein?
Against the Rebels, Willie didn’t start, but once he entered the game, he had his own personal coming out party. He rebounded, he blocked shots, he scored, he dunked, he rotated well on defense. In short, he played like the All Conference player that the Big Blue Nation knows he can be. Cauley-Stein finished with 18 points, 11 rebounds and six blocks. And, in the biggest surprised finished 4 of 5 from the free throw line. When the Cats buckled down in the second half defensively, Willie was the key. The Rebels started out hitting 10 of their first 19 shots and then went 15 for 46 the rest of the way. With Cauley-Stein being the anchor, the Wildcats showed that while they might not be elite defensively, yet, they have the parts to be and they’re starting to get it.
Other than Willie Cauley-Stein, Kentucky’s other key sophomore, Alex Poythress, continues to show his own development and growth. Poythress finished with 10 points and seven rebounds in 20 minutes of play and provided a highlight reel dunk in the first half setting his aggressive tone early. As Calipari has preached to Alex and the Big Blue Nation, he just needs to be a finisher around the rim. And he’s doing it well. As the Cats will most likely see a steady dose of zone defense from opponents, Poythress’ ability to get free along the baseline and attack the rim will be a key component of the Wildcat offense.
The defense needs work. But it’s getting better. The Rebels finished the game shooting 38.5% from the field, 28.6% from three point range and the Cats blocked 12 of their shots. If the defense can go from mediocre to above average, the Big Blue Nation can once again entertain visions of another Final Four banner or more. It’s taken some time, but the Willie got his mojo back and the Wildcats are starting to have some fun and looking like the team that was expected at the beginning of the year.