In Cauley-Stein's second game, it was the Wildcats who couldn't function without Cauley-Stein.
"Willie Cauley was unbelievable," Calipari said. "And you say, 'What did he do?' He just added energy."
When Cauley-Stein checked in for the first time, Kentucky held a narrow 15-12 lead over South Carolina. Within a couple minutes, the Gamecocks took their first (and only) lead at 18-17. It was then that Cauley-Stein's impact became clear.
He had an and-one early in UK's game-breaking 19-2 run, but that what wasn't what had Coach Cal raving in his postgame press conference. He finished with 13 points, six rebounds and two blocks in just 22 minutes of UK's 77-55 win over South Carolina, but it was his simple presence that made all the difference.
"Willie brings a different type of energy than any other player that we have," said Julius Mays, who made four 3s and scored a team-high 15 points. "He changes the game both offensively and defensively."
Cauley-Stein played like someone with a keen awareness of what it's like not being able to play. He is only a week from being in that very position after all.
"It was a lot of fun being able to run again," Cauley-Stein said. "For two weeks I couldn't run as hard as I could. That's what I do is run so it was real fun to be back out with the guys and doing what I like doing."
Speaking for the first time since missing time, Cauley-Stein revealed that the minor procedure he underwent was to remove a two-centimeter piece of his knee cap that was knocked loose during his eighth-grade football season. He had always simply played through the pain, wearing a sleeve over the knee to keep the loose body in one place.
He never really thought of it as anything more than the kind of ache or pain all athletes deal with, at least until he was tested for an entirely separate injury after UK's win over Tennessee on Feb. 15. He could have continued playing, but the doctors advised him the best course of action was to take care of it now. The counsel of medical professionals was all well and good, but he didn't make a final decision until he spoke with his mother.
"They were like, 'We really should try to get it out now so you don't have any complications with it as you go on with your career,' " Cauley-Stein said. "My mom was telling me that I probably should do it, so you listen to your mom."
He also relied on his mother to keep him company as the Cats played their first two games after Cauley-Stein's surgery away from Lexington. He couldn't yet travel with his team, but he wasn't about to miss out on watching.
"I was in my bed with my mom next to me, so at least I had somebody there with me because they had a couple road games I couldn't go to," Cauley-Stein said. "I was just laid up in the bed with ice on it all day."
It wasn't long before Cauley-Stein got back to work though. He couldn't yet run at full speed, so he took the opportunity to work on his strength.
"That's all we did was lifting, running in the pool and the little AlterG thing (an anti-gravity treadmill designed for physical therapy)," Cauley-Stein said. "But yeah, we did a lot of lifting, upper body stuff."
When he was finally able to return to basketball activities, it took some time to get up to speed.
"It was more in the beginning, like in warm-up and something like going into right-handed layup and jumping off my left leg," Cauley-Stein said. "Before I was trying to kind of jump off my right leg and then come back. I didn't have to do that today."
The athleticism that allowed Cauley-Stein to star in football - among numerous other sports - in high school was on display against South Carolina with no apparent effects from the surgery, which is a clear reward for the patient approach Calipari and the training staff took to bringing him back.
"My lungs feel rusty," Cauley-Stein said. "I was winded a little bit, but once I get back into running and basketball shape I'll be good."
If Cauley-Stein can deliver that type of effort without being in peak physical condition, it seems like it shouldn't be too much for Coach Cal to ask the Cats to match him. The thing is that playing with the intensity of Cauley-Stein just isn't that easy. He does see signs, however, that the bug is contagious.
"Piece by piece it's spreading off to other people," Cauley-Stein said. "Kyle (Wiltjer) is starting to play really well. He's starting to go really hard in practice. I'm picking up from what Kyle is doing, and eventually everybody is going to be playing like that. It's just a matter of time when people start figuring out that's how we need to play to take this to a whole 'nother level."