With a dramatic 71-69 victory at LSU on Tuesday, No. 1 Kentucky moved their record to 24-0 and overcame their greatest remaining hurdle to an undefeated regular season. A hostile road environment was always going to be the most likely place for a slip-up and none of their last three road opponents - Mississippi State, Tennessee and Georgia - have anywhere near the talent of LSU. It’s all on the table for this group of players, from going down as the best of John Calipari’s teams in Lexington to becoming the first team to go 40-0 since Indiana in 1976.
The interesting part is despite how well they have played this season, they are not in line for very many individual awards. The Wooden Award lists are full of guys - Delon Wright, Jerian Grant, Frank Kaminsky and Jahlil Okafor - who get to hold the ball because they play on inferior teams. Willie Cauley-Stein is the best player on the best team in the country and he’s not going to be a first-team All-American. There’s lot more that goes into helping your team win basketball games than scoring a lot of points.
Kentucky is one of the most dominant defensive teams of all-time and that starts with Cauley-Stein’s ability to anchor the defense, protect the rim and erase the other team’s top scorer.
It doesn’t matter what position they play - John Calipari can sic Cauley-Stein on any player in the country and change the complexion of the game. In a game against Providence, Cauley-Stein hounded LaDontae Henton, a 6’6 SF, to the tune of 3 points and 3 rebounds on 1-8 shooting. His averages for the season? 20.4 points and 5.8 rebounds on 45.5% shooting.
At 7’0 240 with a 7’2 wingspan, Cauley-Stein has a freakish combination of size and athleticism that has to be seen to be believed. Imagine if DeAndre Jordan was the best perimeter defender in the NBA and you can see the impact Cauley-Stein has at the NCAA level. If there was a decathlon for every basketball player in the world, I’d have my money on Cauley-Stein now that LeBron James is on the wrong side of 30. Here’s how he compares to last year’s first round picks in terms of size and athleticism:
Where he has improved in his three seasons at Kentucky is on the offensive end of the floor. Cauley-Stein came into college an extremely raw big man with very little touch around the rim, no ability to knock down perimeter shots and who struggled to score in the half-court. As a junior, he can score with his back to the basket, knock down mid-range jumpers and create plays within a flow offense.
Cauley-Stein is a super-efficient offensive player and that isn’t even the best part of his game. People want to compare his offense to Kaminsky and Okafor when the reality is that he’s a defensive-minded player who happens to be good at offense. For a fair comparison, you need to compare Okafor’s defense to Cauley-Stein’s offense. Here’s a hypothetical question - can a Wooden Award winner be so bad at defense that he forces his coach to play zone? Only in a world where lip serve is paid to that side of the ball.
The problem isn’t any of the individual players. Okafor, like many young big men who can score the ball, struggles to maintain the same type of focus and intensity on the other end of the floor. You wouldn’t expect him to be as much of a two-way player as a battle-tested veteran like Cauley-Stein. The problem is the way most fans and media view the game.
Here’s another example. Was Aaron Gordon more valuable than Doug McDermott at the college level? Most people would say no because “Dougie McBuckets” scored a lot more points. But while he was a better scorer, he didn’t do as many things to help his team win as the freshman from Arizona. Creighton got embarrassed in the second round of the NCAA Tournament to Baylor because they had no one who could do any of those things:
1. Match up with Baylor’s NBA-bound big men (Isaiah Austin and Cory Jefferson) on the block.
2. Prevent those guys from getting easy alley-oop lobs at putbacks
3. Attack the offensive boards and make them pay for using their 1-3-1 hybrid zone
4. Facilitate offense out of the high post against the zone
Aaron Gordon could do all those things! Who cares if he couldn’t run around screens and fire up 15 3’s a game? Every team in the country has an asshole who can score points if they take enough shots. How many have players like Gordon and Cauley-Stein who can cover every position 1-5? Are we sure that scoring points helps your team win more than playing lock down defense? If we aren’t, why do we insist on every award going to the guy who has the ball in his hands the most often?
Let’s not forget what happened to Kaminsky when he had to face Cauley-Stein’s backups (Dakari Johnson and Marcus Lee) in the NCAA Tournament last season. “Frank the Tank” had 8 points on 7 shots because he struggled to establish post position against the bigger and stronger Kentucky defenders and he didn’t have the quickness to create any separation from them on the perimeter. Do we really think it will be any different this season? Who is going to have an easier time scoring - Cauley-Stein on Kaminsky or Kaminsky on Cauley-Stein? Basketball is played on two sides of the floor.
The reality is that when you say Kaminsky is more valuable than Cauley-Stein all you are saying is that he is used in a bigger role in the Wisconsin offense. It’s the same thing with Okafor at Duke. That doesn’t mean they are better players who do more to help their team win. For all the talk of how advanced statistics and analytics are changing the way we view the game, we are still enthralled by points per game.