I’m not one of those guys. The type who believes the best player, 'Player of the Year' or Naismith Trophy winner must come from the best team or close to it. Usually that ends up being the case: The best player on the court tends to impact a game’s outcome quite a bit after all.
But something must be said about Kentucky. Not that the Wildcats are the best team in college basketball, because that’s obvious, or another breakdown regarding their platoon system, because that’s unnecessary, or how we might be watching one of the best teams ever, because let's wait, but how and why John Calipari's grand experiment continues to work at an exceedingly high level. Or more accurately: Why didn’t they lose this past week? Or better: Why haven’t they lost at all?
On a team of nine All-Americans and talented freshmen, the dude who’s neither of those things is why. Willie Cauley-Stein (or as Big Blue Nation has graciously nicknamed him “WCS”) has been Kentucky’s rim protector, dominating offensive and defensive boards while being its clutch performer in all areas not involving the final shot, which is still (rightfully) Aaron Harrison’s business.Although he fouled out in Kentucky’s double overtime win against Texas A&M on Saturday, he was vital in the Wildcats’ previous overtime contest vs. Ole Miss. WCS chased down a rebound with under a minute left in the overtime period, extending the possession and forcing the Rebels to foul, effectively icing the game. And this was after WCS had already made his mark on the game, recording 12 rebounds, four blocks and three steals.
Cauley-Stein stuffs the box score in every major statistical category not named points. And that's because Kentucky doesn’t need those; any UK player on the court at any given time could be labeled a “scorer.” Points, as important as they are, aren’t the only factor determining a game's outcome. WCS influences the game in much subtler ways, scaring would-be drivers into pulling up short to shoot jumpers, or not allowing teams to double-team and help on defense against Kentucky because leaving WCS alone in the paint is like throwing the ball in your own hoop. (And only Florida does that.)
To be derivative about it, Cauley-Stein’s akin to a younger, more athletic Tyson Chandler -- the difference being WCS is kind of a freak of nature. (Have you ever seen a big man run the court in college hoops within the past decade like him?) So much so that reports state some NFL team might use a late-round pick on WCS, in the rare case he decides to return to his football days when he played wide receiver in high school.
As a junior, WCS has finally ‘put it all together’ as the saying goes. He’s developed a basketball instinct he didn’t possess previously, arriving at a rebound’s location before it ricochets off the rim, and snatching steals from opponents like few other big men can. People worried Cauley-Stein wasn’t dedicated to basketball enough -- Calipari has said, when he used to visit WCS on recruiting trips, he’d be playing every sport but basketball -- but that has proved false. The nuanced parts of his game he’s returned with this year require practice, lots of it; talent and athleticism has nothing to do with it.
Frank Kaminsky and Jahlil Okafor have dominated early season Naismith discussions and rightfully so. Those guys play like a tank and tree, respectively. (Lame joke, maybe, but I couldn’t resist.) With Wisconsin losing to Rutgers on Sunday (though Kaminsky didn’t play) and Duke giving up back-to-back losses, snapping its 41-game home winning streak, Kentucky’s Cauley-Stein deserves a slight edge this week. It’s not because he’s the best player on the best team; he’s just the guy making the most difference.
Naismith Power Rankings
Each week, we’ll rank the top players in the Naismith race. These rankings are fluid and mostly for fun, but they matter ... to someone.
1) Willie Cauley-Stein -- You know what’s scary? This guy, and most of Kentucky for that matter, hasn’t even found its best fit yet. The chemistry’s just a bit off in conference play. They can still be so much better.
2) Jahlil Okafor -- As Duke’s No. 1 scorer and offensive threat, Okafor is shooting 66.8 percent from the field. But wait: Before Tuesday’s loss to Miami, Okafor had a 73.5 field-goal percentage since December. Dude’s unreal.
3) Frank Kaminksy -- Out of the possible 16 games he’s played in, Kaminsky has seven double-doubles this season. Meaning, nearly every other game, he’s recording a double-double. Talk about putting the team on your back.