The Kentucky Wildcats were in a dogfight with Providence in the first half Sunday evening. The Wildcats took the best shot Providence had, and held on for a 79-65 win. In the first half the Friars shot lights out and were able to go to the break with only a 39-35 deficit. Kentucky starts four freshmen, with two more that are in their regular rotation, so slow starts have become the norm for the Wildcats. They typically bounce back in the second half and win the game, or at least get close, but this time the freshmen were bailed out by a sophomore. That’s right, it wasn’t Julius Randle, or James Young, or Andrew Harrison, the savior for Kentucky on Sunday was Willie Cauley-Stein.
Randle is on the short-list of candidates that have a real shot of being the National Player of the Year, Young and Harrison are both five-star recruits that are already being considered locks for the lottery in the next NBA Draft, but it was sophomore Willie Cauley-Stein that helped the Wildcats avoid a shocking loss to Providence. He isn’t has heralded as his teammates, but Cauley-Stein is also widely considered a first round pick, and was huge in the Wildcats comeback. He posted his best game of the season, and maybe the best of his career.
The reputation on Cauley-Stein has always been that he is a good weakside defender, the type of player that uses his length and athleticism to block shots, but unwilling and unable to mix it up in the paint. He has added bulk in the offseason, and with this game he has started to eliminate the “soft” label. Cauley-Stein had a career-high nine blocks, to go along with 15 points and eight rebounds.
Providence was able to keep the game close by knocking down a ton of long jumpers in the first half, especially from Bryce Cotton. The Friars got 13 first-half points from Cotton, and made a total of six first-half three’s. Providence could not get in the lane with Cauley-Stein erasing every attempt, so they had to settle for jumpers. Unfortunately for the Friars, those jumpers were not falling in the second half, and Kentucky was able to stretch out their lead.
As good as this year’s crop of freshmen are for Kentucky, they will need more nights like tonight from someone with a little more experience. Tonight it was Cauley-Stein, and he has proven capable of helping this team, but they will also need Alex Poythress to stand up every now and again. The 2012 NCAA Championship team may have been led by freshmen Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, but they also had upperclassmen Terrence Jones and Darius Miller help them out from time to time.
This team started the season with expectations of going undefeated and winning a title, but after what we have seen from the first month of the season, there is more work to be done. Maybe this Cauley-Stein’s performance will be a building block for them to take the next step, with emphasis on the block part.
Follow Robbie on Twitter @rmarbury