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January 25, 2014

Cauley-Stein snaps slump as Cats power past Dawgs

Willie Cauley-Stein felt just fine.

At first, the Kentucky sophomore didn't feel the sense that he was slumping during what looked to most any observer like a three-game funk. For a time, it felt to Cauley-Stein like he was giving the same energy, playing with the same effort he always did.

And then he watched the tape.

"I was frustrated because in my head I was trying, but then when I went back and looked at it, it was like, 'I don't play like that,'" Cauley-Stein said a bounce-back effort in No. 14 UK's 79-54 rout of Georgia on Saturday. "I don't know why I was doing that."

He never did pinpoint a reason.

But Cauley-Stein woke up Saturday morning coming off two strong days of practice and confident he'd play well.

That new resolve helped him look like his old self. Cauley-Stein finished with eight points, six blocked shots, six steals and three rebounds in helping the Wildcats (15-4, 5-1 Southeastern Conference) power past the Bulldogs (10-8, 4-2).

"I thought he played well -- blocks, steals, moved his feet, made some baskets, two free throws," UK coach John Calipari said. "That's who he is for us."

It's not who he'd been in the Wildcats' previous three games. In games against Arkansas, Tennessee and Texas A&M, Cauley-Stein had totaled three points, 10 rebounds and shot 1 for 9.

He got suggestions for how to shake out of his funk, from changing his looks -- at least one person, Cauley-Stein said, suggested he go back to the dyed-blonde hair he sported earlier this season -- to changing, well, his look.

Calipari told him that "smirkin' ain't workin'," and asked for more focused facial expressions.

Cauley-Stein even went back to the headband he'd recently abandoned, and though he laughed and shrugged off the suggestion that it helped him play better, it's likely back for good.

"Looks like I'll start wearing it all again," he said. "Whatever the people want. Got to give the people what they want."

The people where there for Cauley-Stein as he worked his way through a slump. Teammates "were worried about Willie, but they helped," Calipari said, by providing support.

Fans did, too.

"I heard a lot of positive things, and I was touched by it, because last year if that was happening, you're getting murdered," Cauley-Stein said. "For one, because you're losing. So this year, I was kind of like, 'Oh, I'm going to stay off Twitter.' But then I was on there and it was positive, so then I was like, 'You know, it's good that our fans are here to pick us up.'"

On Saturday, Cauley-Stein picked up the Cats.

His blocked shots and steals were defensive difference makers for UK, which held Georgia to 32.7 percent shooting and forced 20 turnovers. The Bulldogs scored less than a point per possession and committed a turnover on 29.9 percent of their possessions.

"We're great," when Cauley-Stein plays well, said guard Aaron Harrison, who led UK with 15 points. "Definitely defensively. We can afford a lot more mistakes with Willie back there blocking shots and affecting shots. We're a lot better, definitely."

During Cauley-Stein's slump, freshman Dakari Johnson played the best he has this season. Kentucky experimented with Alex Poythress and Julius Randle on the floor together.

Some good came out of Cauley-Stein's funk.

But all along, the Cats knew it was important he snap out of it.

"Like I said, we can win without Willie," Calipari said. "We're not winning big without Willie."


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