By Keith Taylor
Willie Cauley-Stein wasn't surprised it took overtime for the top-ranked Wildcats to dispose of Mississippi in the Southeastern Conference opener for both teams earlier this week at Rupp Arena.
Cauley-Stein blamed part of the closer-than-expected 89-86 win over the Rebels on the team's nine-day layoff that preceded the conference opener. Kentucky survived with a 58-50 win at Louisville on Dec. 27 and didn't play again until last Tuesday.
“First game back you knew it was going to be rough like that,” said Cauley-Stein, who finished with seven points, grabbed 12 rebounds, collected three steals and blocked four of the team's seven shots against the Rebels. “First SEC game is hyped. It’s going to be a wake-up call. We hadn’t had a game in so long. It was good to get back out there. That’s what it’s all about.”
Cauley-Stein said the Wildcats (14-0) learned a lesson in the three-point win that could have easily been reversed down the stretch. Cauley-Stein said the “other team is not going away,” especially after the Rebels recovered from an 18-5 deficit in the first five minutes, turning the early rout into a tight contest.
“We go up 12, whatever we did, and they’re right back in it two minutes later,” he said. “That’s how it is — that’s how it’s going to be every game that we come out. Especially the young guys, I heard (them) talking in the locker room like, ‘Dude, that was so crazy.’ That’s how it is every time. Now they get it.”
Cauley-Stein said the newcomers, especially starters Karl-Anthony Towns, Devin Booker, Tyler Ulis and Trey Lyles, gained an understanding of what it's like to be targeted, especially during the second half of the season, with teams jockeying for postseason position and a trying to produce a juiced up resume.
“Now (the freshmen are) going to understand every time we go out there that team is going to play out of their mind,” he said. “No matter who you play, if you’re playing against Kentucky at Kentucky, no matter who you play they’re going to play out of their mind because of the hype.”
Cauley-Stein understands the mindset of other teams and doesn't blame them for coming at the Wildcats at full force.
“I would feel like I’m going to go out there and show them they’re not the toughest,” he said. “(The game against Ole Miss) proves it right there … that game we just had proves that it doesn’t matter who you play. This league is so tough it’s ridiculous.”
Like Cauley-Stein, Ole Miss coach Andy Kennedy said the close encounter between the two league foes will be beneficial for both teams in moving forward.
“Going undefeated is difficult, very, very difficult,” Kennedy said. “This game will help us, because I think it will show our guys ‘Hey, we went toe-to-toe with the best and had an opportunity and came up a couple plays short.' I think it’ll also help Kentucky, because it’ll wake them up to the fact now we’re in league play and things change in league play.”
Keith Taylor is award-wining sports editor for the Winchester Sun in Winchester, Ky. Keith was named Top Newspaper Columnist in the 2014 Readers Choice awards in Winchester and has won numerous awards from the Kentucky Press Association, with first-place awards for Best Column in 2000, 2009 and 2012. He has won 19 first-place awards and several second-and third-place awards in his 23-year career. He was runner-up for Kentucky Sports Writer of the Year 2008-10. Keith resides in Richmond with his wife Rhonda and is a member of the Berea Church of God, where he serves on the church board.