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Cats ponder potential life without Cauley-Stein in short term

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Willie Cauley-Stein's status is uncertain after he underwent a minor procedure on his left knee on Thursday. (Chet White, UK Athletics) Willie Cauley-Stein's status is uncertain after he underwent a minor procedure on his left knee on Thursday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
The first three seasons John Calipari spent at Kentucky were remarkably healthy. With a capable training staff, durable players, sensible practice plans and a little bit of good fortune, the Wildcats, with a few exceptions, played with a full complement of players almost every night.

This season has been another story. Ryan Harrow missed games early in the season due to illness. Jon Hood has missed more than a month with a sickness of his own.

On Friday, Coach Cal announced the latest news on the injury front: Willie Cauley-Stein aggravated a left knee injury that dates back to his days in junior high school and underwent a minor procedure to address it on Thursday. Even though he's fresh off of three years of avoiding the injury bug, Calipari has been around long enough to know that these kinds of things happen.

"We're one short for a short while," Calipari said. "Thank God it was nothing major. You get dings and bruises in this thing. You get hit, kicked, bumped, come down wrong on an ankle. I mean there's all kind of stuff that happens in this game."

Cauley-Stein has been bothered by the injury in recent weeks and Calipari said there had been times in games Cauley-Stein needed to come out because of it. Nonetheless, Cauley-Stein could have played through it as he had for years, but that's not the path Calipari or the training staff wanted to take.

"Nothing major, but it was an old thing he just never did anything about," Calipari said. "And let me say this: We didn't have to do anything. It could've been, 'You're fine. Put the knee sleeve on and go.' But as you know, that's not how we operate here. If I err, I'm going to err on the side of the kid."

Calipari gave no specific timetable for Cauley-Stein's return, but said UK (11-5, 2-1 Southeastern Conference) is preparing for Saturday's 9 p.m. ET game at Auburn (8-8, 2-1 SEC) "presuming" the freshman forward will not be available. Cauley-Stein has started each of UK's last five games and has played fewer than 20 minutes just once over the last seven, so his potential absence would leave a hole in the rotation.

"We're a pretty deep team so I feel like we're confident with or without him," Kyle Wiltjer said. "Of course we want him to be on the court at all times, so hopefully he's OK. Hopefully we can just keep getting better with or without him."

If Cauley-Stein does indeed miss time, Wiltjer will be a player called on to step up. The sophomore forward scored just two points in 33 combined minutes in UK's first two SEC games, but was a key cog in Tuesday's win over Tennessee. He played 26 minutes against the Volunteers, his most since Dec. 4 against Samford, scoring a team-leading 17 points and grabbing five rebounds.

The performance may have been a departure from recent ones and a surprise to outsiders, but Coach Cal saw hints that it may be coming.

"He's stepped up on the practice stuff," Calipari said. "He's gotten in the gym and done extra. He's becoming more aggressive and talking more in practice. Right now, he's the most vocal player we have. When you do that, you build your own self-esteem and self-confidence."

The clearest sign of Wiltjer's growing confidence came against Tennessee when he called for the ball on back-to-back trips down the floor. He scored four points in a row on a pair of plays that have been installed specifically for Wiltjer, likely the most polished offensive player UK has.

"It kind of just frees me and gets me some open looks early on in the game," Wiltjer said. "My teammates find me the ball so it really just helps me get it going."

Alex Poythress, another player whose role figures to expand with Cauley-Stein sidelined, will be looking to make similar strides. With Cauley-Stein becoming a starter, Poythress has slid over to the three position in UK's big lineup. After he came off the bench against Louisville and played just 15 minutes, Calipari has been working with Poythress individually and the freshman has averaged 11.3 points and 6.2 rebounds in the four games since.

"His growth is going to be step by step," Calipari said. "There's not going to be (big) movement 'til next month. Everything with Alex will be step by step. And they're baby steps right now. That's OK. That's where he is."

If Calipari had his choice, Poythress's baby steps with Cauley-Stein out would be on the glass. Cauley-Stein is averaging 7.0 rebounds a game dating back to the beginning of December, meaning Nerlens Noel will need some help on the boards from Poythress, particularly if he plays more at the four. Should Poythress play more as a big man, that could create an opportunity for Hood to join the rotation. The junior returned to practice on Thursday after a long battle with upper respiratory illness.

Without Cauley-Stein, UK's rotation will lack a long, gifted athlete in the short term. The goal, however, remains the same.

"I got a great call from a coaching friend of mine last night saying, 'Look, you're so close to it. Your team - individual players and your team - is getting better. Just keep on the path,' " Calipari said. "That's all we're going to do. I'm not worried about any other team in the country. All I'm worried about is my team getting better."

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