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Willie Cauley-Stein's surprise return bolsters already strong Kentucky frontcourt

Jeff Eisenberg
The Dagger
Kentucky forward Willie Cauley-Stein is interviewed in the locker room before practice for the NCAA Final Four tournament college basketball championship game Sunday, April 6, 2014, in Arlington, Texas. Kentucky plays Connecticut in the championship game on Monday, April 7. 2014
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Kentucky forward Willie Cauley-Stein is interviewed in the locker room before practice for the NCAA Final Four tournament college basketball championship game Sunday, April 6, 2014, in Arlington, Texas. Kentucky plays Connecticut in the championship game on Monday, April 7. 2014. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)

The last image of Willie Cauley-Stein on the Kentucky bench won't be with an electric blue flower-print button-down shirt underneath his jersey.

Cauley-Stein announced Monday evening that he is passing on the chance to enter the NBA draft and intends to be back in uniform at Kentucky next season. The 7-foot center averaged 6.8 points, 6.1 rebounds and 2.9 blocks this past season before suffering what turned out to be a season-ending right ankle injury against Louisville in the Sweet 16 and sitting out the remainder of the NCAA tournament.

“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!”

The return of Cauley-Stein is nearly as big a surprise as Louisville's Montrezl Harrell announcing he intends to come back to school earlier in the day. Like Harrell, Cauley-Stein was a projected first round pick with a chance to go as high as the late lottery.

Whereas Harrell's return shores up a position of weakness for Louisville, Cauley-Stein's return further bolsters a position of strength for Kentucky.

Between Cauley-Stein, sophomore-to-be Marcus Lee and incoming freshmen Karl Towns and Trey Lyles, Kentucky will have at least four former McDonald's All-Americans 6-foot-9 and taller next season. And the frontcourt would only get stronger if 7-foot freshman Dakari Johnson and 6-foot-8 sophomore Alex Poythress were also to come back. 

What will be interesting to see is whether Cauley-Stein's return influences Johnson's decision. Would Johnson return when there's the potential he could see even less playing time than a year ago? And will Calipari be able to keep that stable of big men happy when there's only so much playing time to go around?

Regardless, the bigger question for Kentucky remains the backcourt. If James Young and the Harrison twins turn pro as expected, the Wildcats will rely heavily on a pair of freshmen.

Small but jet-quick Tyler Ulis is the heir apparent at point guard. Fellow freshman Devin Booker and Poythress would be the most likely starters at wing.

Nonetheless, Cauley-Stein's return ensures the Kentucky frontcourt will again be deep and massive next season. That should help the Wildcats survive any early growing pains their backcourt experiences. 

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Jeff Eisenberg is the editor of The Dagger on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at daggerblog@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter!

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