UK enduring after key injury thanks to relentless POY candidate Willie Cauley-Stein

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LEXINGTON, Ky. – The season-ending knee injury to forward Alex Poythress on Thursday shook the Kentucky Wildcats to the core.

In part because the core of this team is Willie Cauley-Stein.

The 7-foot center is the nation's best defensive player, and the most valuable, versatile and relentless member of the nation's best team. He's also its leader. And he is Poythress' roommate.

The team took the news of Poythress' injury hard, but no Wildcat took it harder than the thoughtful giant from Olathe, Kan.

"He's one of the best kids I ever met," Cauley-Stein said Saturday, after the 'Cats moved to 11-0 by pounding North Carolina, 84-70.

The two young men who share the cover of the Kentucky media guide are the rarest of John Calipari commodities – highly recruited juniors. The fact that they're not in the NBA right now, along with the sophomore Harrison twins, is why Kentucky is the runaway No. 1 team in the nation. This isn't just the most talented team, it's a veteran team as well.

On Friday, Cauley-Stein watched Poythress labor to simply get out of bed and go to the bathroom. But more profound than the physical difficulty of a torn ACL was the emotional impact.

Willie Cauley-Stein (15) celebrates during Kentucky's win over North Carolina. (USAT)
Willie Cauley-Stein (15) celebrates during Kentucky's win over North Carolina. (USAT)

"Every player's worst nightmare," Cauley-Stein said.

A season disappears. A long, lonely tunnel of rehab takes its place. Doubt and depression can set in.

And your teammates have to move on without you. So in addition to moral support, Cauley-Stein plans to offer some advice to Poythress.

"Don't turn into a ghost," he said.

Cauley-Stein nearly became an apparition last spring, when he was hurt in the NCAA tournament Sweet 16 against Louisville and missed the rest of Kentucky's Final Four run. He tried to be the life of the party, wearing one garish shirt after another on the bench as the Wildcats beat Michigan, then Wisconsin, before falling to Connecticut in the national title game. But ultimately he was just a guy on crutches watching his teammates perform on the big stage without him.

That's why Cauley-Stein went out of his way to make contact with Poythress every time he came out of the game Saturday in Rupp Arena. Poythress sat at a baseline table near the far corner of the bench, and Cauley-Stein worked his way down the line of players and support staff until he could bump a fist or slap a hand with his roommate.

"I came down all the way to the end just to make sure [he knows] I'm still thinking about him," Cauley-Stein said. "We're here with you. We're not going to leave you out of nothing. I'm going to do that every time I come out."

Kentucky players come out of the lineup often this year, as Calipari tries to juggle his abundance of talent. Yet as the season goes along, it's increasingly obvious that there is no reason to stress about where the minutes go. Any combination Cal chooses is going to work.

The loss of Poythress will cost the Wildcats some maturity and defensive prowess – but with his 20 minutes per game redistributed to freshman forward Trey Lyles and the Harrison twins, UK's offensive skill level increases. And if Andrew Harrison sees more time on the wing, that frees up a few more minutes for diminutive dynamo Tyler Ulis at point guard. He's the best true point on the team, and his eight assists Saturday was a season high for any Wildcat.

North Carolina coach Roy Williams knows a thing or two about managing a loaded roster. He's had a few of them at Kansas and in Chapel Hill. But even he hasn't had a roster like Kentucky's, with nine McDonald's All-Americans stacked up behind each other.

"This may be even more of a challenge for John than anything I've gone through," Williams said. "I've always said I could get nine guys enough playing time, eight easily. John was trying to get 10. I don't know what he's going to do but that's the reason they pay him all that money. … You have to have special kids, I'd say, is the first thing. They have to be concerned about the name on the front of the jersey. They have to be willing to give in.

"If I had to pick one thing [that impresses him about Kentucky], I of course would say size. Or the athleticism, I guess that's two things. But the next thing that's impressive about John's club to me is how unselfish they appear to be. That's a pretty doggone good trait."

Nobody has been less selfish than Cauley-Stein. He leads the team in minutes (24.5 per game) and scoring (10.7 points per game) and is second in field-goal percentage (.623), but he's only fifth on the team in shots per minutes played. Cauley-Stein attempts a shot once every 3.5 minutes he's on the floor.

Alex Poythress watches his teammates warm up before UK's win over North Carolina. (Getty)
Alex Poythress watches his teammates warm up before UK's win over North Carolina. (Getty)

Perhaps that's because he's so busy doing everything else. He had team highs of six rebounds, four steals and two blocks Saturday, and might have had a team high in floor burns as well.

"He is a complete player," Williams said. "If you look at it, he affected the game drastically and only took nine shots. … Their defense was so much stronger, and I think that was the dominating thing in the game. And Willie was the spearhead."

Cauley-Stein came to Kentucky a lavishly gifted athlete but a raw basketball player. His foul shooting was a nightmare (37 percent as a freshman) and his offensive skill almost non-existent beyond dunks. Now he's making 63 percent of his free throws and can score with either hand, even if he's not a shooter.

Most Wildcats don't stick around long enough to develop the way the former high school wide receiver has. It's been something to watch – and there is no telling where his game may top out.

Can a guy be the National Player of the Year while scoring 10 points a game? Anthony Davis won every POY award in 2012 while primarily being a defensive force, but he also averaged 14 points and 10 rebounds -- numbers Cauley-Stein likely won't be able to approach.

But if Kentucky takes an undefeated record into the NCAA tournament -- a growing possibility with each victory -- Willie Cauley-Stein will be the biggest reason why.

"I feel like potential is limitless," he said. "It's as far as you want to take it. So, to me, I feel like I haven't even begun to peak. I'm just climbing. I'm still climbing. Like, if I want to I could do something that's really never been done in history, and that's the way I look at it. If I really want to be the best player in the country, all I have to do is work at it and eventually you're gonna get there."