On their road to the Final Four, No.8 Kentucky has relied, almost exclusively, on freshmen. Now, an even greater burden will fall on the first-year players, due to Willie Cauley-Stein’s injury.
After missing the Wildcats’ Elite Eight contest against No.2 Michigan, it looks like the sophomore will miss the remainder of the 2014 NCAA Tournament. Cauley-Stein injured his ankle in Kentucky’s Sweet Sixteen victory over No.4 Louisville.
"I doubt he plays," head coach John Calipari said Monday. "He will be on our bench cheering like crazy."
Cauley-Stein has played a crucial role in Kentucky’s season. Even though he’s just in his second year, he’s the only non-freshman to play significant minutes and start multiple games. While Julius Randle, James Young, Aaron and Andrew Harrison have started almost every contest, Cauley-Stein and Dakari Johnson have split time at the fifth spot in the lineup.
In 37 games, the 20-year-old is averaging 6.8 points and 6.1 rebounds on nearly 60 percent field-goal shooting. His greatest impact, though, has come on the defensive end. He leads the Wildcats and ranks 16th in the nation, registering 2.9 blocks per contest.
Cauley-Stein is Kentucky’s only top five scorer that isn’t a freshman. First-year players are responsible for more than 81 percent of the Wildcats’ scoring.
Kentucky faces a tough task in the Final Four. They’re set to take on No.2 Wisconsin, who defeated top-seeded Arizona in the Elite Eight. The Badgers are led by seven-footer Frank Kaminsky, who is averaging 22 points in his last three games. Without the sophomore, it won’t be easy for the Wildcats to stop Wisconsin’s best player.
"We're going to have to play him as a whole team," rookie Dakari Johnson said Tuesday. "He may not be as smooth, but he's faster than he looks. We really have to do a great defensive job against him, not just individually but as a team."
In their win over Michigan, Kentucky showed that they have the pieces to win in Cauley-Stein’s absence. A seven-footer in his own right, Johnson has continued to improve, throughout the season. Most importantly, Marcus Lee looks like he can make a significant contribution to the team. After sitting out 15 games and failing to play more than 15 minutes in any contest, the freshman was called upon to take Cauley-Stein’s minutes in the Midwest Regional final. The McDonald’s All-American scored 10 points, grabbed eight rebounds and recorded two blocks, while making five of his seven shot attempts.
Assuming Cauley-Stein does not return during March Madness, his college basketball career might be finished. He’s projected by most NBA draft experts to be a first-round pick, and could find his way into the lottery, if he heads for the pros.