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By LARRY VAUGHT

Nerlens Noel is headed to the NBA, and could be the No. 1 pick in the June draft, but he thinks Kentucky has a rising star for next year in center Willie Cauley-Stein.

“Another year, Willie can be one of the best big men in the country, definitely. I’m sure he will be. Willie is a freak athlete. He’s 7-foot, he’s fast, quick, he has all the intangibles to be great,” said Noel. “Next year, I’m sure he’s going to dominate the collegiate rankings and move on to bigger and better things.”

Cauley-Stein was the last heralded member of UK’s 2012 recruiting class but was ranked as the nation’s 10th best high school center by Scout.com and sixth best by Rivals.com. He was a consensus top 40 player even though he also played football where he caught 57 passes for 1,140 yards and 14 touchdowns as a senior.

Noel said he saw tremendous improvement in his classmate’s play.

“He’s made so much progress in his game, and just even mentally. Early on Willie wasn’t too sure about things, but as the season went on he’s gotten so much more confident and just so sure of himself that there were just times in practice where he just dominated,” Noel said. “You’d see flashes. Willie’s come a very long way, physically and mentally, and he’s really come into his own as a player.”

Cauley-Stein averaged 8.3 points and 6.2 rebounds per game in 29 games last season — he missed four after needing minor knee surgery during the season. He blocked 60 shots. He hit 62.1 percent from the field, but only made 37.2 percent (32 of 86) of his free throws.

He says he’s going to be a far different player as a sophomore for coach John Calipari.

“The intensity. It’s different if you make it different. It could easily be the same where you come in here and you don’t work as hard but the thing is, I don’t think Cal is going to let that happen,” Cauley-Stein said. “And those guys coming back aren’t going to let that happen just because of how we finished — you can’t leave off that.

“I feel very comfortable stepping into a leader role. I already feel different. Once the season ended, it was kind of like my whole mentality changed instantly. I wish it would have changed before the tournament happened. I got kind of like a dominating mindset kind of going into this next year. I want to be the best in everything I do. Before I was kind of like, ‘Ehh… This time I want to come in and do it. I don’t want to try to do it.’”

He has specific changes in mind to become a better all-around player.

“A guy that can step out and shoot 3’s, hit the 15-footer, take people off the dribble, just becoming more of a complete dude, and not just a guy that’s going to stay in the paint,” Cauley-Stein said. “That’s not the way I wanted to play coming in. It just ended up being like that (last season).”

Kentucky will be adding six McDonald’s All-Americans to the roster, including frontcourt players Julius Randle, Marcus Lee and Dakari Johnson to go with Cauley-Stein, Alex Poythress and Kyle Wiltjer. Cauley-Stein said he will help make sure the newcomers understand what it takes to win.

“I think the biggest thing I took from all that is that you’ve got to know from the get-go that it’s real. We started off really good and we went those couple games where we lost those two games in a row and it was like, ‘Wow. We’re really not as good as we thought we were,’” Cauley-Stein said. “And that’s the biggest thing. Every game you play — it’s hype. It’s a Super Bowl for everyone. I think that’s the biggest thing for the freshmen coming in is that you have no time to relax when you step in between those lines. It’s all business when you step in there.”

“Everything we do has got to be a win or lose. Everything we have to do has got to have a consequence if you lose, and if you win, you get praise for it. You get that kind of feel like, ‘Oh, if I win, you get special treatment.’ If you lose, you’re doing something you don’t want to do. That’s the way it’s got to be coming into it. That’s what’s going to create that dog in you to try to go out and just kill somebody.”

He hopes having experienced players returning — something last year’s NIT team was missing — will pay off.

“I think that’s exactly what we missed this year is a guy that played a lot of minutes his freshman year that decided to come back and take on the role of a leader,” Cauley-Stein said. “We didn’t have that this year. Kyle was that kind of guy but he still didn’t play big minutes his freshman year. This year, we’ve got three guys including J.P. (Jarrod Polson) that were playing almost 30 minutes a game. That coming back is going to help tremendously.”

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