- Mississippi State Bulldogs - January 17, 2017 - 7:00 PM EST - Humphrey Coliseum, Starkville, Miss. - ESPN
Perhaps filled with questions of what could have been after missing most of the final four games of Kentucky’s run to the national championship game or maybe just too content with being a kid in college, Willie Cauley-Stein has decided to put his NBA dreams on hold and return to UK for his junior season.
The sophomore forward announced the news on his Twitter account on Monday.
“I’m proud to say I’m coming back for my junior year,” Cauley-Stein said on Twitter. “I still have an empty spot to fulfill and in no rush to leave the best fans in the USA!”
Cauley-Stein will return to UK as one of the premier big men in the country.
The 7-footer was averaging 6.8 points, 6.1 rebounds and 2.9 blocks in just 23.8 minutes per game in his sophomore season before injuring his left ankle during the Louisville game in the Sweet 16.
Cauley-Stein rallied behind his teammates and played the role of supporting teammate during UK’s run to the title game, but he admitted after UK’s loss to Connecticut that missing those games and being unable to help his teammates was making him think long and hard about coming back.
“The best thing that’s probably ever happened to me is coming to Kentucky,” Cauley-Stein said after the national championship game. “That whole community, that whole fan base makes you feel like you’re a rock star. The kids look up to you. The old people, they look up to you. You got 40-year-old guys that you’re their role model because you’re 20 years old and you’re like, ‘How am I going to be a role model when you’re 20 years older than me?’ It’s just amazing to see. Those fans are so powerful.”
“That will always being weighing in the back of your head when you’re trying to make a decision whether you want to stay until you can’t stay no more or you want to leave early,” he said. “That’s kind of like how I am. Why not relish something for as long as you can until you’re forced to leave or make that jump? That’s the hardest thing.”
Cauley-Stein wants to relish the college experience for at least one more year.
“I want to come back and have a chance to win a national championship while also getting closer to earning my degree,” Cauley-Stein said in a release. “Being at the Final Four this year was special, but not being able to help my teammates on the floor was tough. I look forward to helping us get back there next year while playing in front of the best fans in the nation.”
Cauley-Stein finished the 2013-14 season with 106 blocks, tying Nerlens Noel for the program’s second-best mark in a single season. His 166 blocked shots already rank sixth among UK’s career leaders, and he trails Jamaal Magloire by 102 blocks for first place.
“I’m happy for Willie and also proud of him for making the best decision for him and his family,” John Calipari said. “Being in school for at least three years will get him closer to having a degree and will help him prepare for the next level and life afterwards.”
The return of Cauley-Stein will bolster what should be yet another formidable and lengthy front line for Kentucky. Julius Randle, Alex Poythress, Dakari Johnson and Marcus Lee all figure to have NBA decisions to contemplate, but any combination of returners from that group, along with forward Derek Willis, will give Coach Cal a core to build around.
Calipari, in the middle of promoting his new book, “Players First: Coaching from the Inside Out,” was asked Monday on the Dan Patrick Show if he was taking the over or the under on five players leaving UK this year for the NBA.
“I just hope it’s under (so) that I get to coach them another year,” Coach Cal said.
In addition to any of those potential returners, UK will add highly touted big men Trey Lyles and Karl Towns to the front-court mix next season. Lyles is ranked the No. 8 overall player in the 2014 recruiting class, according to Rivals, and Towns is ranked No. 11. Both were McDonald’s All-Americans and both will play in the Jordan Brand Classic on Friday.
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