Willie Cauley-Stein is a rarity for Kentucky under John Calipari — a seasoned junior with pro potential. Such a situation may not have occurred if not for an ankle injury in the Sweet 16 that ended Cauley-Stein’s NBA Draft hopes (and made him a brief fashion icon in the basketball world).
Not since 2010-11 with Darius Miller and DeAndre Liggins has Calipari had a third-year player in a key role. That said, Cauley-Stein’s minutes won’t be guaranteed simply because he’s been around the block a few times. Cauley-Stein will be a member of one of the best frontcourts in the country with holdovers Alex Poythress, Dakari Johnson and Marcus Lee and freshmen Karl-Anthony Towns and Trey Lyles.
Athlon Sports spoke with Cauley-Stein about Kentucky’s transformation from a 12–6 team in the SEC to the national runner-up and how Cauley-Stein is embracing his role as one of the veterans for another team with national title aspirations.
This interview and more appears in the 2014-15 Athlon Sports college basketball annual, available on newsstands and in our online store now.
Related: No. 1 Kentucky Wildcats Preview
We may as well start with this. One of the last times people saw you was wearing that wild shirt while on the bench at the Final Four. It got quite a bit of run. Where did you find that?
I had just seen it in a mall. When I first saw it I didn’t look twice at it, and as I was walking around. I was like, you know what, I like that shirt after all, so I picked it up.
Did you know people would be talking about it? It was quite the subject on Twitter.
Anything different is going to be a subject.
How do you view last season in retrospect? How you finished was great with a run to the national championship game, but your team didn’t show that potential until you got to the postseason.
I think we just stayed focused. When you have a lot of young guys out of the gates, it takes a long time to start clicking together like a real team. We did the things we did at the end because we learned how to play with each other. It just took a whole season to figure out that out.
So do you consider it to be a successful season or do you feel like you left something on the table since you didn’t start playing to that potential until the late?
It was real successful. We made it to the finals. Everybody had us canceled out in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.
When did you sense the switch had started to flip and you were starting to play together?
It was the first game of the SEC Tournament. That’s when the sense of urgency was different. The feel was different. You can tell players had finally figured out how they wanted to play and how they were supposed to play. They had starting giving of themselves for the team, and that started at the SEC Tournament and carried over from there.
Coach John Calipari said he had to learn through the season how to coach this team and figure which buttons to push. Did you notice a change in him during the season?
He got more chill as we were starting to win. When you’re losing, the coach isn’t going to be chill. You change a lot when things are going to right. He just changed the way guys are playing. The change he made with Andrew (Harrison) was vital. Andrew should have been playing like that from Day 1. That changed the whole team up.
You suffered an ankle sprain against Louisville in the Sweet 16 on March 28 but didn’t undergo surgery until mid-April. How has your recovery progressed?
Pretty good. I’m pretty much cleared to do stuff now. Now it’s just getting back to playing shape and strengthening my legs back up again. Other than that, I’m able to do little workouts here and there and hit the weights hard.
How tough was it to watch the Final Four, and do you feel like you could have won the title had you been able to play?
That’s hard to say. People say it’s true, but you don’t really know. I’d like to think that I’d be able to change the game that much to change the outcome. But it’s hard to say. You don’t know what could happen.
For the last few years Kentucky has been a team without a lot of veterans, and you’re going to be one of the guys that Kentucky looks to. How do you prepare for that role?
It’s going to be different, but I think it’s time to just go into that role and stopping all the kiddish stuff. It’s time to step up and take a role that older dudes take.
What do you mean by “kiddish stuff” and stuff that you’re cutting out?
Like arguing with the coach or looking for calls. Just playing like nothing really matters, playing with a good attitude and a good mind and not worrying about little petty stuff.
Do you feel that arguing with coaches or officials held you back?
No. But when you get to the veteran stage it’s almost like you’re a coach. You have to start telling young guys what you’ve been through and you got through it. And if you’re doing the same things as a young dude when they come in, you don’t get the kind of respect as a veteran.
When you were contemplating going to the NBA Draft after the season, what was your conversation like with John Calipari?
He just gave us all the facts, what teams are saying. He’s trying to pick your brain on whether you’re ready to go or not. That’s all he tells you, or if he thinks you can go.
He said he was surprised that you returned to school instead of going to the draft. What led to that decision?
I feel like if I never got injured I would have left. A lot played into that because I was kind of thinking earlier in the season of leaving. I was banking on making my draft stock go up by going through the workouts you have to go through. Since I was injured, I couldn’t go through any of that. I wasn’t able to change any spots to go earlier because I wasn’t able to work out.
Were you just as surprised as anyone that Andrew and Aaron Harrison decided to come back to Kentucky or did you have a feeling they’d return as well?
I really wasn’t thinking about it. By the time they were going through their decision, I was going through surgery and wasn’t paying attention to anything other than getting healthy again. It took a long time to decide, so I figured if they were taking that long that they were coming back.
With the group of big guys coming into this team, Kentucky is going to have one of the best frontcourts in the country. How do you think this group and the competition is going to help you for the next level?
They’re all pros. We’re all future pros. In a practice setting, going against future pros every single day, you have no choice but to get better. You’ve just got to get your mind right before you get to the next level.
How competitive do you think it’s going to be for playing time? As you said, you’re all future pros and you can’t all be on the court at the same time.
I don’t know, but it’s the same thing every year. It’s no different this year than it was the last three years, the last four years or the last five years. It’s the same every year. Coach is going to play the guys he thinks deserves to play more or who is working hard and doing the right things. Those are the guys who are going to play. But there are so many combinations you can play with this team coming in that it doesn’t really matter who is coming off the bench or who starts because everyone is going to play the same minutes.
With that competition and the mixing and matching, how do you make sure that’s something healthy and not something that can disrupt the team?
You’ve got to sacrifice yourself for the team, tell yourself that I’m not getting 35 minutes a game, so I disagree with what coach is doing. That’s just a sacrifice you have to make to play at a level we’re trying to play at.
Is that where you could use Marcus Lee as an example? Here’s a guy who didn’t play much during the season, but when the time came, he was ready.
For sure, that’s how it is. Everyone here can play the game of basketball. You have to be ready for your opportunity. When you’re called up, you’ve got to be ready to go. That’s how we run practices and how we run workouts. You never say one guy is over everybody else.