- Vanderbilt Commodores - February 28, 2017 - Rupp Arena - 9:00 PM EST - ESPN
There were a number of factors pulling at the heartstrings of Willie Cauley-Stein and Alex Poythress while they contemplated the decision to turn pro or return to Kentucky, and the factors rested on both sides of the table.
On one side, there was the temptation to fulfill their lifelong dreams of going to the NBA and make a hefty sum of money in the process. They could personally profit off their talent, do something they’ve always wanted to do for a living and worry about little else but basketball.
On the other side was the chance to improve their games, delay the gamble of the NBA Draft and turn their debated potential into almost certain success, all while enjoying the fruits of being a college kid for just a little bit longer.
Both sides tugged at Cauley-Stein and Poythress after going through a difficult first year in college, but when it came down to it, the disappointment of the 2012-13 season may have been what ultimately brought the duo back for their sophomore seasons.
“It just left a bad taste in your mouth,” Cauley-Stein said. “I feel like something’s empty and I want to fill it. Next year we’re going to have a great opportunity to do that.”
Speaking for the first time since they announced their returns, Cauley-Stein and Poythress said the hunger to win a national championship was too much to turn down. At the root of the title quest will be motivation to right last year’s wrongs.
“You don’t want next year to end like this year,” Poythress said. “It shouldn’t happen with the guys coming and the people returning. We’re going to have that much of a fire burning in our belly.”
Believe the two when they say a championship is exactly what they expect in their return to college.
“The goal is a championship, nothing less, nothing more,” Poythress said. “That’s the ultimate goal. That’s what we want to do.”
Expectations for a national championship are always around at Kentucky, even more so since John Calipari arrived. The Cats reached the Elite Eight, the Final Four and then won the national championship in Coach Cal’s first three years at UK, so expecting to finish at the top is nothing new around these parts.
Only now, after a hard-to-fathom end in the first round of the National Invitation Tournament at Robert Morris, does the desire to win a national championship seem so insatiable. Winning a title will certainly quench the thirst, but the expectation level is as high as it has ever been after a disappointing end to 2012-13 and the potential of next year’s roster.
Pairing the returns of Cauley-Stein, Poythress and Kyle Wiltjer with what many are calling the greatest recruiting class ever assembled, just about everyone from fans, national experts and coaches expect Kentucky to return to college basketball’s elite and compete for a title.
The nation’s consensus top-ranked recruiting class includes six McDonald’s All-Americans, Kentucky’s top two high school players and four players ranked at the top of their positions. Factor in the return of 40 percent of last year’s scoring and 41 percent of the rebounds in Cauley-Stein, Poythress and Wiltjer alone and it’s easy to see why everyone is so bullish on next season’s potential.
The problem with that thinking, Cauley-Stein said, is potential is exactly that – it’s unfounded success. Potential is the same thing Cauley-Stein’s recruiting class was heralded with, but it never developed last year into the promise that seemed so certain to come with it.
“We had the potential this year and didn’t capitalize on it,” Cauley-Stein said. “We had the best recruiting class coming in and (didn’t) do anything with it. It’s that simple. If you don’t come together and do things right, then you’re just a bunch of talented kids that didn’t get anything accomplished.”
The difference between last year’s team and next season’s collection of talent is the 2013-14 squad will feature a number of veterans to show the youngsters the ropes. Outside of Wiltjer, who didn’t play a ton of meaningful minutes during the most recent national championship season, the 2012-13 team didn’t have any veterans for the freshmen to imitate, a la Darius Miller, Terrence Jones or Doron Lamb.
That won’t be a problem with Cauely-Stein, Poythress and Wiltjer coming back, not to mention the increased roles of Jon Hood and Jarrod Polson.
“You got to know from the get-go that it’s real,” Cauley-Stein said. “We went into those couple games – we started off really good and went in those couple games where we lost those two games in a row (Notre Dame and Baylor) and it was like, ‘Wow, we’re really not as good as we thought we were.’ And that’s the biggest thing: Every game you play it’s hyped; 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.”
Leadership will certainly be one of a number of benefits next season’s freshmen will reap from the return of experienced players. Competition will be another.
Just from a pure numbers standpoint, Kentucky will be in much better shape than it was a season ago. Next year’s team will have the same number of former or current McDonald’s All-Americans (eight) in practice than last year’s had scholarship players when Nerlens Noel and Twany Beckham went down.
That daily competition should play a huge factor in the evolution of the team.
“That’s going to be the best thing to come out of next year is you’re going against pros every day,” Cauley-Stein said. “This year it was like that until Nerlens got hurt, and then we were going against (walk-ons). You’re not getting better. You’re going to dominate practice and get into a game and struggle. Next year it’s going to be a lot different. That’s what I’m going to capitalize on is going at these dudes every day because it’s not only going to make me better, it’s going to make my team better. Vice versa, it’s going to make them better with older guys going at them.”
Poythress and Cauley-Stein made the decisions to return to school after the annual end-of the-season individual meetings with Coach Cal.
Cauley-Stein and Wiltjer were the first to announce they were coming back because Poythress needed time to think it over with his family. Despite an inconsistent freshman year, many people were surprised at Poythress’ decision to return to school, a choice he said his heart told him to do.
“It’s real hard because it’s your life ahead of you,” Poythress said. “It’s your future. It’s a job. You’re leaving school to go get a job. You’ve got to take it very seriously.”
The decision wasn’t as hard for Cauley-Stein, who never planned on leaving UK after a season when he signed on. Cauley-Stein said he enjoys school and wasn’t in “any hurry to leave.”
“You don’t get these years back anyway, so why grow up sooner than you have to – you know, pay for stuff, taxes,” Cauley-Stein said. “I’m not trying to pay for taxes for one. I’m still a kid. I just like the college life.”
Cauley-Stein briefly considered making the jump when his stock shot up late in the year, but the murky projections of his draft status were too uncertain to convince him to leap.
“I heard a wide variety of things, which kind of that’s what set me off,” Cauley-Stein said. “I heard anywhere from eight to 10, 15 to 20, 22 to 25. That’s the whole dang scale. That’s everywhere. I didn’t feel real comfortable taking a chance on it and landing somewhere that I’m not going to be good at or ending up hurting myself and coming back and helping.”
Back in the fold for another year, Cauley-Stein is driven to erase the bad taste left in his mouth left by last season.
“I already feel different,” he said. “Once the season ended, it was kind of like my whole mentality changed instantly. … I kind of got like a dominating mindset going into this next year. I want to be the best in everything I do. Before I was kind of like, ‘Ah, I’ll come in here and try to do …” This time I want come in here and do it. I don’t want to try to do it.”