By LARRY VAUGHT
Remember two years ago when Connecticut struggled to a so-so Big East Conference finish, barely got into the NCAA Tournament because it won the Big East Tournament and then won the national title— and beat Kentucky in the Final Four — thanks to the inspired play of guard Kemba Walker.
Could Kentucky have a Walker-like player to spark a postseason resurgence starting with Friday’s play in Nashville in the Southeastern Conference Tournament?
“Maybe it’s Willie (Cauley-Stein),” said Kentucky coach John Calipari. “Maybe Willie becomes the most dominating big guy in college basketball, makes a difference in every game, and everybody else just does what they’re supposed to do.”
Florida scored just four field goals in the second half of Saturday’s UK win when Cauley-Stein, who has become UK’s shot blocker and insider presence after the injury to Nerlens Noel, was on the floor.
“I think the staff told him: ‘Every time you came out, you saw what happened.’ I had to play him with four fouls with 11 minutes to go. ‘Why’d you play your guy with four fouls?’ We want to win. Didn’t want to lose. So I put him back in so we could win the game,” Calipari said. “And then if he fouled out, I would figure out what to do to try to win the game.”
The UK coach said Cauley-Stein has done “fabulous” considering he was the least heralded player in UK’s No. 1 ranked recruiting class.
“This kid just has a great temperament. He’s growing. He’s building his own confidence. And I say it, if you want confidence from the Coach – ‘Coach, you yell too much at me.’ You can’t play. You stink. You build your own self-confidence,” Calipari said. “You do it through great preparation and hard work and demonstrated performance. It doesn’t matter what a fan yells at you, what the media writes about you; it has no effect on you.
“You have confidence. Well, he’s building his own, and it’s coming slowly because he was playing football six months ago. He was a heck of a wide receiver, by the way. But he is becoming a better and better player and becoming an integral part of what we’re doing.”
Calipari said he could see a 25-point, 15-rebound, seven-block game coming for the freshman cetner.
“He has that. His feet and hands are so good, it’s just he gets so tired out there because he plays so hard he’s got to come off the floor,” Calipari said. “You look at what he means to this team, he’s had a huge impact. Nerlens being gone has hurt us, but we’re still blocking shots, we’re still rebounding the ball and doing the stuff we were doing when Nerlens was here.”