LEXINGTON, Ky. – Willie Cauley-Stein has become quite comfortable hosting block parties around the basket for third-ranked Kentucky.
The Wildcats' 7-foot sophomore has blocked 20 shots the past three games, including a career-best nine rejections on Sunday against Providence. Cauley-Stein enters Friday night's game against No. 20 Baylor (7-1) in Arlington, Texas, with 31 blocks. He is averaging 3.9 blocks per contest along with 9.6 points and 8.4 rebounds.
Cauley-Stein said against Providence he was just doing "what I'm supposed to do. It was more natural, and I wasn't really thinking about anything that I was doing."
He will make his second straight start for the Wildcats (7-1) on Friday and he is eager to continue his shot-blocking roll that has sparked Kentucky's defense.
"I think on the defensive side, if you can do that, you're good," said Cauley-Stein, who passed on entering the NBA draft to return for another year of seasoning. "The offense just feeds off your defense. If you're playing extremely hard on defense, then the offense is just going to come easier for you."
Footwork and defensive positioning have become instinctive for Cauley-Stein, who backed up 6-foot-10 Nerlens Noel much of last year before being thrust into starting the lineup after Noel's late-season knee injury. Cauley-Stein was more reactive than proactive during that stretch-run while adjusting to more minutes and a bigger presence on both ends of the court.
He was solid in three starts to begin this season but seemed to find his rhythm during a four-game stint as a reserve behind Marcus Lee. Kentucky coach John Calipari had decided to go with the program's first all-freshman lineup with Julius Randle, James Young and twins Andrew and Aaron Harrison.
But the coach said Cauley-Stein has played his way back into the starting lineup.
Quick and active for his size, athleticism has helped Cauley-Stein get in position to make steals away from the basket and even dribble from end to end on occasion. Against Cleveland State, he seemed to come out of nowhere to receive several lob passes from Andrew Harrison for dunks that sparked last week's comeback against the Vikings.
Cauley-Stein then matched his career best with seven blocks against Eastern Michigan before topping that in Sunday's 79-65 victory against Providence, the second straight outing in which he has flirted with a triple-double. The game marked his first back as a starter, but Cauley-Stein is focused on making the most of however many minutes he plays.
"I knew I'd get minutes, but now I feel like I'm getting off to a better start," he said. "I've wanted to make sure I'm good from the start."
Calipari said Cauley-Stein is playing more intuitively while showing a high energy level, qualities he wants his talented group of freshmen to emulate.
"He's reacting better and I'll tell you why," the coach said. "Because, he's practicing like crazy. He is attacking practices, which makes the game easier. We have other guys that the practice is attacking them every day.
"Whatever it is, the last part of every drill (Willie) is going like there's no tomorrow, versus other guys looking at the clock trying to get through the drill. There's a difference. You finish the drill. ... You have to change. Some guys are changing, Willie's changing."
Cauley-Stein has scored in double figures the past four games as a result, helping to draw opponents' attention inside away from Randle, who has battled through double- and triple-teaming all season.
Randle said he's also benefiting from Cauley-Stein's leadership, a role that he and Wildcats sophomore forward Alex Poythress took on with the arrival of eight heralded freshmen. It has definitely been needed with Kentucky facing high expectations along with a challenging December schedule that continues at AT&T Stadium against the Bears.
Baylor's lone loss was 74-67 to No. 4 Syracuse in the Maui Invitational. The Bears return two starters from the team that beat Kentucky 64-55 at Rupp Arena a year ago including 7-1 sophomore center Isaiah Austin, who's averaging 10.5 points and 3.3 blocks per game.
While the Wildcats must handle Austin's lengthy challenge, they counter with Cauley-Stein poised to make noise with his play and leadership.
"He's starting to become really vocal, but before anything he's going to lead with his actions or how hard he plays," Dallas native Randle said of his teammate. "You can tell that's what he does by having nine blocks last game and then scoring the ball there at the end.
"He's changing the game and making our team a lot better."