If, at the end of the year, there had been a draft to pick one of the three freshmen who declared an intention to return to Kentucky for sophomore year to actually return, I'd take Willie Cauley-Stein first.
Over Archie Goodwin. Over Alex Poythress.
Which might turn out to be the case. Cauley-Stein announced he's coming back while Goodwin announced he's leaving, and Poythress is still gathering information but reportedly leaning toward the draft.
Having all three back would be optimal. Two would be great. One's fine -- and forced to choose that one, Cauley-Stein would be it.
The freshman center showed flashes of dominance as a backup center playing 20 minutes per game, then sustained some of those flashes as a starter following Nerlens Noel's injury. In those nine subsequent games, he averaged 9.6 points, 7.4 rebounds and 2.8 blocks in 28.9 minutes. His production rose with his increased playing time and responsibility. If he's serious about summer workouts and offensive development, he could become a two-way monster. Even with a raw, unpolished game this year, Cauley-Stein could get himself easy looks almost at will. If he hones his moves? He could be a top-flight post scorer.
And he did it within the confines of the team. Cauley-Stein did not need the ball to make an impact, averaging 6.3 shots over the last nine games. That's only 11.8 percent of the team's total shots over that span. Goodwin, meanwhile,averaged 11 shots per game, which is 20.5 percent of the team's total shots.
On a team that will be filled with talent -- and talented scorers -- this must be taken into consideration. Cauley-Stein should have no problem seeing about the same amount of touches next year. But Goodwin couldn't possibly take one-fifth of the team's shot attempts next season. Would he be okay with a substantial decrease? Would he figure out how to do more with less? It's an issue that might not have had an easy solution.
Cauley-Stein gives next year's roster more balance than Goodwin would. UK will again have two big centers to rotate in with Cauley-Stein and Dakari Johnson. They'll team up with a frontcourt of (at least) Marcus Lee, Kyle Wiltjer and Julius Randle, giving John Calipari a plethora of skill sets to work with. Meanwhile, the Cats already have a few perimeter scorers coming in. Goodwin would have added to the backcourt, certainly, and created more depth. But say he got squeezed out of the starting lineup by the Harrison twins. Would he have been okay with that? And if he did win a starting spot, would the Harrison twins be okay with one starting and the other coming off the bench? Again, it's an issue that might not have had an easy solution.
Make no mistake, it's not that Goodwin leaving is preferable. It's just that, forced to choose one or the other, I'd select Cauley-Stein to be my returning freshman.