Kentucky Wildcats Basketball: A Tale of Two Sophomores

Matt KingFeatured ColumnistDecember 2, 2013

Dec 4, 2012; Lexington, KY, USA; Kentucky Wildcats forward Alex Poythress (22), guard Archie Goodwin (10) and forward Willie Cauley-Stein (15) walk on the court after a timeout in the game against the Samford Bulldogs at Rupp Arena. Kentucky defeated Samford 88-56. Mandatory Credit: Mark Zerof-USA TODAY Sports
Mark Zerof-USA TODAY Sports

It's hard to remember, but there was a time not long ago when Kentucky fans were excited about Alex Poythress.

Nerlens Noel was the star recruit, but Poythress was the No. 8 ranked recruit in the country according to Rivals and seemed like the most game-ready freshman on the team. He was built like a mack truck, which stood in stark contrast to Noel's lanky frame. Poythress seemed explosive, the kind of player who could muscle through a defender and then rise up and throw it down with power.

And for a little while, it looked like that's exactly what the Wildcats had. In their first five games, Poythress was aggressive and confident, averaging 18.4 points and 7.4 rebounds per game. Nothing quite showcased how athletically gifted he was like his 20-point coming-out party against Duke the second game of the season.

Then it all went downhill seemingly as quickly as it began. Poythress' stats dropped as his confidence was clearly starting to wane. It became obvious that on a team that desperately needed someone who could create some offense, he was not that player. In Kentucky's final 13 games, Poythress managed to top double digits just twice and scored only six points on 3-of-7 shooting in their embarrassing loss to Robert Morris.

When he decided to come back for a sophomore season, nobody was really surprised. Poythress clearly wasn't ready, nor was the other freshman who would join him in returning to the Wildcats: Willie Cauley-Stein.

Cauley-Stein was the least heralded of Kentucky's 2012 recruiting class. He was a standout wide receiver in high school who almost quit basketball to focus on football at one point. Only a late growth spurt to 6'10" made it clear that basketball was his future.

Still, Cauley-Stein was very much a project. Obviously very athletic and quick for his size, his basketball IQ was lacking, and he didn't quite know what to do with his size yet. Kentucky fans were happy to see him come back, but with the signings of McDonald's All-Americans Julius Randle, Marcus Lee and Dakari Johnson, and with Poythress coming back, nobody really knew how much we were going to see of him.

Fast forward to Sunday.

Dec 1, 2013; Brooklyn, NY, USA;  Kentucky Wildcats forward Willie Cauley-Stein (15) reacts after a dunk against the Providence Friars  in the second half at Barclays Center. Mandatory Credit: Noah K. Murray-USA TODAY Sports
Noah K. Murray-USA TODAY Sports

Kentucky played their most complete game of the season, beating a good Providence team away from home 79-65. Randle lost his bid for eight straight double-doubles to start the season, but all anyone could talk about was Willie Cauley-Stein. WCS flirted with a triple-double, going for 15 points on 7-of-8 shooting, eight rebounds and nine blocks.

He had already proven to be an exceptional shot-blocker early in the season, but Cauley-Stein still had no touch around the basket. If he wasn't throwing down an alley-oop or laying the ball up, chances are the ball was not going in. That changed against Providence, as he displayed a shocking amount of offense.

The game before against Eastern Michigan I tweeted:

Now it seems like that may not be too far off.

Meanwhile, Poythress scored five points against Providence, grabbed one rebound and blocked two shots in 15 minutes of play. Early in the season it seemed like he may have reinvented himself as a garbage man, crashing the boards and wreaking havoc inside along with Randle instead of trying to create offense. Calipari said as much himself.

"He’s right now building his own confidence,” Calipari said after the Northern Kentucky game. “He’s building his own self-esteem. You know why? He’s not trying to do stuff he can’t do. … Do what you do well."

Poythress was averaging over 10 boards a game after the Michigan State game but has since grabbed just an average of 4.4 since then. And forget about scoring. He's averaging 5.4 points a game and threw up a goose egg against Texas-Arlington in 15 minutes of play.

It's no question that Poythress is suffering from the emergence of Julius Randle as one of the top players in college basketball. They play the same position and the same kind of game, but Randle is just...better at it. Poythress has responded by basically disappearing. Sure he's not trying to do stuff he can't do, but he's also not really doing much of anything.

In order for Kentucky to contend for a national championship, they're going to need Willie Cauley-Stein to continue to grow like he has been and be that X-factor for them. But at some point, maybe not now, but down the road in an important game, they're going to need Alex Poythress to come up big.

On a team with one of the most touted freshmen recruiting classes in history, there's a good chance their future is going to live or die by the sophomores. One an afterthought who just might become the most important piece of Kentucky's puzzle this year. The other a player who once looked like a star and has now become an afterthought.