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Cauley-Stein, Poythress out to impart lessons learned to talented freshmen

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Willie Cauley-Stein (left) and Alex Poythress will help incoming freshmen ease into life as a UK basketball player next season. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics) Willie Cauley-Stein (left) and Alex Poythress will help incoming freshmen ease into life as a UK basketball player next season. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics)
Becoming a champion is arguably the toughest achievement in sports. A championship is every team's ultimate goal each and every season.

"We got big expectations next year," said Alex Poythress, who opted to return to UK for his sophomore season earlier this month. "We just want to come prepared every day because the expectations next year, the goal is a championship, nothing less, nothing more."

Living up to the hype of a ranking or reputation is also no easy task, especially when that hype reads, "No. 1 recruiting class and likely to repeat as national champions."

The 2012-13 Kentucky basketball team had those expectations - fair or unfair - and failed to live up to the billing.

On the surface, it appeared Kentucky had all the ingredients it would need for another stellar season. The top recruiting class in the country, for the fourth consecutive season, was arriving at UK, Kyle Wiltjer was returning for his sophomore season off a national championship freshman season, and Ryan Harrow and Julius Mays would provide veteran leadership as transfers

But games aren't played on paper and the season failed to deliver a third Final Four in as many seasons.

With admittedly "bad tastes" left in their mouths after the way their freshman season ended, Willie Cauley-Stein and Poythress decided to return, realizing they needed more time to mature and had unfinished business to tend to.

Freshman year was difficult for each of them, but countless lessons were learned along the way.

"I already feel different," said Cauley-Stein. "Once the season ended it was kind of like my whole mentality changed instantly - which I wish it would have changed before the tournament happened. I kind of got like a dominating mindset going into this next year. I want to be the best in everything I do."

"It prepares you mentally," said Poythress. "We should be mentally prepared for everything because really when you're losing, that's when you figure out what people are made of and stuff like that. It should just help us mentally."

Kentucky lacked a true leader last season to help prepare the freshmen for the difficulties they were bound to face. The Wildcats had only one senior, Mays, who had never played on the stage that is UK basketball. They didn't have a Darius Miller or a Terrence Jones or Doron Lamb.

They will this year.

"I think that's exactly what we missed this year is a guy that played a lot minutes as a freshman (and) decided to come back and take on the role of a leader," said Cauley-Stein. "We didn't have that this year. Kyle was that kind of guy, but he still didn't play big minutes his freshman year. This year, we've got three guys - including (Jarrod Polson) - that were playing almost thirty minutes a game. That coming back is going to help tremendously."

After experiencing a full season of life as a Kentucky basketball player, Cauley-Stein and Poythress have each seen what it takes. They've gone through the tough times, the worst season head coach John Calipari has endured in his tenure at Kentucky.

With that experience, they want to change that and make sure that never happens again.

"You don't want next year to end like this year," said Poythress. "It shouldn't happen with the guys coming and the people returning. We're going to have that much of a fire burning in our belly."

Once again, next season, Kentucky looks awfully good on paper. With multiple key components returning for another season, and UK bringing in arguably the most heralded recruiting class in the history of the game, the Wildcats are considered a lock to contend for their ninth national championship and second in three seasons.

While Cauley-Stein says his decision to come back to Kentucky was "easy," he has seen that living up to the hype and expectations is not.

"The hype with these guys coming; they're freshmen," said Cauley-Stein. "They're going to have to do the same thing we've gone through, plus it's going to be harder next year anyway. That's the way I'm thinking about it. They're going to have to go through the same thing freshmen year we did, and it's tough. It's a tough road to go down."

Both Cauley-Stein and Poythress acknowledged how tough their freshman seasons were, and with the caliber of talent on the way, they expect it be even more difficult next season. That's a challenge they're willing to accept as it will likely lead to more competitive practices and improvement for their respective games.

Nothing will be given to them. Nothing will be easy.

"The hype is different because we have more guys coming in," said Cauley-Stein. "But it's going to be harder because we have 10 potential first-round picks coming back and going to be here playing against each other every day.

"Coach doesn't want the same thing to happen that we did this year for next year, so he's going to change a bunch of things so that doesn't happen. Intensity is going to pick up. The level of how we're going to play is going to go up tremendously."

That has to start from the beginning. From now until the freshmen get here, the returning players must focus on improving and transforming themselves. When the freshmen finally arrive, then it's time for the returners to show them the ropes.

From that point on, it's time to go to work.

"I think the biggest thing I took from all that is you got to know from the get-go that it's real," said Cauley-Stein. "We started off really good and went in those couple games where we lost those two games in a row (Notre Dame and Baylor) and it was like, 'Wow, we're really not as good as we thought we were.

"And that's the biggest thing. Every game you play is hype. It's a Super Bowl for everyone. I think that's the biggest thing for the freshmen coming in is that you have no time to relax when you step in between those lines. It's all business when you step in there."

Cauley-Stein believes that, after speaking with Coach Cal during their post-season meeting, it's up to him to become that leader they lacked last season and to bring next year's team together as early as possible.

"Cal always harps to you about coming together and, the way we were going, we were coming together right when the tournament was happening," said Cauley-Stein. "I think this year (it will start) way earlier, like way in the summer: having team meetings or going out to eat and doing goofy stuff together. I think that's what's really going to bring you together. That's one of my big things I'm going to go into the summer with."

If they don't come together, then just like last season, potential may never become a reality.

"The potential is exactly that. We had the potential this year and didn't capitalize on it," said Cauley-Stein. "If you don't come together and do things right, then you're just a bunch of talented kids that didn't get anything accomplished."

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