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Cauley-Stein embraces spotlight, magnitude of being a Wildcat

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Willie Cauley-Stein averaged 8.3 points and 6.2 rebounds as a freshman. (Chet White, UK Athletics) Willie Cauley-Stein averaged 8.3 points and 6.2 rebounds as a freshman. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
Willie Cauley-Stein emerged from the Joe Craft Center film room, saw the throng of Media Day reporters and turned back into the hallway.

It turns out Cauley-Stein needed to set something down and couldn't put it next to him with that many people surrounding him for an interview. A year ago, the move would have represented Cauley-Stein's apprehension about the idea of being a star.

Then, Cauley-Stein wasn't ready for the spotlight. He preferred to stay in the shadows as a supporting cast member. Let the other talented, more highly touted freshmen take center stage, he thought. He figured, as a lower-ranked, relatively unknown "project," he could come in, figure out his role on his time and blend in.

But that never quite happened.

Cauley-Stein's talent became apparent almost immediately, and with limited depth inside, he was thrust into a role he never truly expected to fill, at least not so soon. The media loved him for his openness and candid comments, and he teased fans with NBA lottery-type potential.

But once Nerlens Noel went down with his season-ending injury, Cauley-Stein not only became an important piece, he became the focal point inside, the big man on campus. Now, a season later, Cauley-Stein admits he not only struggled with being in the spotlight, he wasn't ready for the big time and everything that came with it.

"I didn't want to be a leader," Cauley-Stein said Tuesday and UK Media Day. "I was OK with being in the shadow and just doing me, being able to just do whatever and learn as I go."

Doing him was part of the evolution of Cauley-Stein in year one.

As a new face in a new place, Cauley-Stein was trying to get comfortable in his own skin. Here he was, a 7-foot kid from Kansas who dressed a little differently, acted a little differently, and didn't want to necessarily do and talk basketball all the time.

None of that's changed for Cauley-Stein - he's eclectic as ever, evidenced by his talk on Tuesday about surviving a possible zombie apocalypse (no, seriously) - but now he's more ready than ever to balance what makes him unique with the responsibilities of being a leader, being in the spotlight and everything center stage entails.

"It's fun to me being in the spotlight now that I know how to do it," Cauley-Stein said. "Not knowing how to do it is the worst battle. You've got to try to figure out how you're going to do that and if you're even ready to do it."

Cauley-Stein said he had no idea the effect his role as a basketball player had on this state and its fans when he came to college last year.

"Heard about it," Cauley-Stein said. "Didn't believe it until it actually happened. You definitely have to experience it to believe it. Telling somebody about it, they think you're exaggerating about it, but it's really like how people explain it."

The spotlight includes more than just what happens on the court.

Cauley-Stein said he didn't understand the impact he has on people as a Kentucky basketball player and the significance the program has in the eyes of its fans until going through the Big Blue Madness campout last year.

"Last year, in my opinion, I was like, 'It's just a scrimmage, why is this such a big deal?' " Cauley-Stein said. "And then you go out there and you're signing autographs and taking pictures and just talking to people ... that's when you realize. You see a different side of why they're camping out and why it's such a big deal. It's actually kind of heartwarming. It's kind of inspirational, too, because you don't know what other people are going through unless you really sit down and take a look at why are you camping out for this for a week."

As recently as Monday, Cauley-Stein was reminded of the magnitude of his role. Walking back from lunch, Cauley-Stein said a girl approached him, asked if he would take a picture with her and then started hyperventilating when he agreed.

"I was just like, 'It's OK, I'm just a regular person, I'll take a picture with you,' " Cauley-Stein said. "She was just like, 'Oh my god, I'm your biggest fan .' Like I swear she was about to pass out."

Those moments never bothered Cauley-Stein - he still seems flattered by them - but it was never a position Cauley-Stein truly understood until this year. To him, he was just Willie, a simple kid from Kansas trying to figure out this whole school and basketball thing like any other 18-year-old.

Now he understands he means more than that to a lot of people, and whether or not he's more than just a "regular person," he can either run into the shadows or embrace the spotlight.

Cauley-Stein said he's choosing the latter.

"I was like, 'Dang, I have that big of a toll on somebody.' That's heartwarming to know that by you just acknowledging somebody walking down the street that you can make their day," Cauley-Stein said. "It's kind of cool to have that ability."

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