With or without Cauley-Stein, it’s just another ‘Super Bowl’ on the road for UK

UPDATE: Cauley-Stein will not be available for Saturday’s game against Auburn. He stayed in Lexington to receive addition treatment on his injured left knee.

Stuck between a rock and a hard place, Willie Cauley-Stein would have played through a lingering left knee injury he’s had and fought through the pain. John Calipari said they simply could have put a knee sleeve on it and let him play.

“But as you know,” Calipari said, “that’s now how we operate here. If I err, I’m going to err on the side of the kid. Let’s just be safe.”

So, after seeing Cauley-Stein pull up in shoot-around the other day, Coach Cal said enough was enough and had his freshman forward undergo a minor procedure on Thursday. His status for Saturday night’s game at Auburn is up in the air, although Calipari didn’t rule out the possibility that he could still play against the Tigers.

“He won’t practice today, but he’s walking around, so we’ll see,” Coach Cal said.

Calipari was limited Friday in what he could tell the media about Cauley-Stein’s injury due to student privacy laws, but he confirmed that it was an old injury that has bothered Cauley-Stein at times this season.

“We have been dealing with Willie (for awhile),” Calipari said. “Again, it was an injury – I hate to tell you – since junior high school. For the last couple of weeks (it has bothered him). So, it just happened to where, alright, let’s go, let’s see (what’s wrong).”

Based on how Cauley-Stein was playing of late, it was hard to tell anything was wrong with Cauley-Stein. The 7-footer from Olathe, Kan., had worked his way into the starting lineup for the last five games and was playing the best basketball of his career. He has played fewer than 20 minutes just once in his last seven games.

The Basics

What: UK (11-5, 2-1 SEC) vs. Auburn (8-8, 2-1 SEC)
When: Saturday, 9 p.m. ET
Where: Auburn Arena (9,121)
Game notes: UK | Auburn
Video: Cal, Harrow and Wiltjer preview Auburn

Auburn File

Record: 8-8, 2-1 SEC
Head coach: Tony Barbee (34-44 at Auburn)
Ranking: N/A
Nickname: Tigers
Player to watch: Frankie Sullivan (17.8 points, 4.4 rebounds, 3.3 assists)
Series history: UK leads 86-17
Last meeting: UK won 68-53 Jan. 11, 2012

TV/Radio Coverage

Radio: UK IMG
Live stream: 
Live stats:
Live blog: CoachCal.com

Cauley-Stein is averaging 7.6 points, 5.8 rebounds and 1.9 blocks per game while shooting 62.1 percent, but he’s looked particularly more comfortable on offense since the end of Camp Cal. Against Eastern Michigan he posted the second double-double of his career with 11 points and 11 rebounds.

“He probably is going to come back after a short period and be rested and ready to go, I would imagine,” Calipari said. “But he’ll be weight training and doing anything else and running and all the other stuff, so he’ll be fine.”

If Cauley-Stein can’t play Saturday – and Coach Cal reiterated multiple times that he could still make the trip and play – it would obviously even things up a bit with the 8-8 Tigers given Auburn’s lack of size. Outside of Robb Chubb and Asauhn Dixon-Tatum, the Tigers are rather small inside.

“It’s all good,” Coach Cal said. “We’re one short for a short while. Thank God it was nothing major. You get dings and bruises in this thing. You get hit, kicked, bumped, come down wrong on an ankle. I mean there’s all kind of stuff that happens in this game. Some guys, you’ve got to miss it; you miss a game or two.”

The Cats have been blessed with relatively few injuries since Calipari took over the UK program in 2009, but the run of good fortune ended this season.

Ryan Harrow missed two weeks at the beginning of the year with an illness, Twany Beckham has missed time off and on throughout the season with a lower back injury, and Jon Hood, who is expected to return Saturday, hasn’t played since the Lipscomb game on Dec. 15 with an upper respiratory illness.

That type of adversity has prepared the Cats for their latest possible setback.

“The team has played without players before so we’ve just got to make that adjustment,” Harrow said. “Coach knows how to work around that and get the team to play in a way that we need to play without that person even though we’re going to miss them.”

If there is ever an OK time for an injury, perhaps it’s this weekend. Kyle Wiltjer is coming off one of his best games of the season, scoring 17 points in 26 minutes of play. It was a particularly encouraging performance for the 6-10 sophomore because he mixed up his 3-point touch with an emphasis to take it inside.

At one point he even asked for the ball on a play, the first time he’s ever done that in his career at UK, Caliapri said.

“He’s stepped on the practice stuff,” Coach Cal said. “He’s gotten in the gym and done extra. He’s becoming more aggressive and talking more in practice. Right now, he’s the most vocal player we have. When you do that, you build your own self-esteem and self-confidence.”

Wiltjer will likely be counted on more down low if Cauley-Stein misses any time. Alex Poythress would shift to the power forward position, and Hood would get thrown right back into the fire.

Kyle Wiltjer scored 17 points on Tuesday in the win over Tennessee. (photo by Chet White, UK Athletics)

“We’re a pretty deep team so I feel like we’re confident with or without him,” Wiltjer said. “Of course we want him to be on the court at all times, so hopefully he’s OK. Hopefully we can just keep getting better with or without him.”

With or without Wiltjer, the Cats are expecting a raucous environment in Auburn Arena on Saturday night against what Calipari described as a physical, hard-playing Auburn team that has opened Southeastern Conference play with back-to-back wins.

The Tigers, in their only sellout at home last season, gave the Cats one of their toughest road games of the year as Chubb matched Anthony Davis with 14 points and eight rebounds. The Tigers, despite a final 2011-12 record of 15-16, gave everything UK could handle for most of the game. It wasn’t until a game-ending 23-6 rally that the Cats pulled away.

Like Elston Turner’s 40-point performance last week, it was another one of those cases where the team played out of its mind because Kentucky was the opponent.

“Everybody tries to play their best game against us because they’ve kind of guessed that we’re their meal ticket,” Harrow said. “I guess if they play good against us, they’re going to get to the next level or they’re going to get recognition, so we just can’t let those things happen.”

Auburn will try to do do the same. Averaging just 5,360 fans at its 9,121-seat arena this season, Auburn has already announced that Saturday’s game is its first sellout of the season. The Tigers are also retiring former All-American and NBA All-Star Mike Mitchell’s jersey during the game.

No one at Kentucky is surprised. With or without Cauley-Stein,  it’s just another “Super Bowl” on the road for the Cats.

“You play at Kentucky,” Calipari said. “Isn’t it great that everywhere you go it’s sold out? You’re the biggest game on everybody’s schedule. Take great pride in that. That’s why you came here.”

Team stats

(national rankings, as of games through Jan. 17, in parentheses)

  UK Auburn
Scoring offense 77.2 (29) 69.9 (122)
Scoring defense 62.2 (87) 66.5 (182)
FG percentage 48.5 (18) 43.5 (158)
FG percentage defense 38.6 (34) 41.5 (149)
3-point percentage 35.8 (93) 36.1 (79)
3-point percentage defense 32.5 (140) 32.9 (164)
FT percentage 64.6 (289) 66.8 (233)
Rebound margin +4.3 (74) +2.5 (126)
Steals per game 7.4 (128) 8.1 (78)
Blocks per game 7.6 (3) 4.2 (97)
Assists per game 15.6 (41) 14.1 (98)
Turnover margin +1.8 (95) +0.5 (168)

Stat leaders

  UK Auburn
Points per game Archie Goodwin (15.2) Frankie Sullivan (17.8)
Rebounds per game Nerlens Noel (9.3) Rob Chubb (7.8)
Field-goal percentage Alex Poythress (63.1) Rob Chubb (52.4)
3-point percentage Kyle Wiltjer (41.2) Jordan Price (52.8)
Free-throw percentage Julius Mays (86.7) Frankie Sullivan (77.3)
Assists per game Archie Goodwin (3.6) Frankie Sullivan (3.3)
Blocks per game Nerlens Noel (3.9) Asauhn Dixon-Tatum (1.3)
Steals per game Nerlens Noel (2.8) Josh Wallace (1.7)