Recently in men's basketball Category
Speaking in measured tones, the normally colorful 7-foot junior struggled to come to grips with the torn ACL his suite mate, former roommate and best friend on the team, Alex Poythress, had suffered less than 24 hours prior.
It just didn't seem fair.
"I mean, he's just that older brother," Cauley-Stein said. "He's the good brother that's always doing the right stuff, got his grades right, and like it's just crazy. Like why's this got to happen to a dude who just does everything right and definitely doesn't deserve to go down with an injury like this?"
Even right after it happened, it didn't quite seem real.
Scrimmaging during a normal Thursday practice, Poythress -- averaging 5.5 points, 3.8 rebounds and 1.5 blocks in 20.3 minutes per game this season -- raced ahead for an open layup, but landed awkwardly on his left leg. He screamed in pain, but walked reasonably well and experienced less swelling than normal for a serious knee injury. An MRI, however, revealed the damage and John Calipari summoned the Wildcats for a late-night team meeting.
"Guys cried," Calipari said.
"It was honestly like somebody in your family died," Cauley-Stein said.
Poythress, though his season is over, is very much alive. Maintaining perspective is difficult so soon after news so devastating, but it's necessary.
"When I saw Alex last night, I said to him exactly what I said to Nerlens (Noel): 'You're fine. If this is something crazy, you have insurance and you're a millionaire,' " Calipari said on CoachCal.com. "You have even more time than Nerlens had to prepare yourself for the draft if that's what you choose to do. You can also come back. You're going to have your degree in May and you can start on a master's degree for your last year.' Alex is nearly a straight-A student and one of the greatest kids that I've ever coached."
Cauley-Stein, broken up as he was about the news, understands that perspective better than most.
Just last March, an ankle injury ended Cauley-Stein's season in the Sweet 16, relegating him to the sidelines as UK made its incredible run to the national championship game.
"I know for me, I understand how he's feeling, like you get hurt like that it feels like everything's just coming down on you, especially in basketball (where) you've got stuff you're trying to accomplish here, not only me and him together, but us as a whole team," Cauley-Stein said. "Just to have that kind of just end and not knowing what's going to come next is the worst part."
Through that uncertainty, the Cats will be offering any support their fallen teammate needs, whether that's in the form of space to spend time with family, watching TV together, playing video games or whatever else.
"I'm just being here for him, stepping in, (seeing) if he's good, do you need anything, and then kind of just letting him chill," Cauley-Stein said. "A lot of it, you do want to be alone at first, and then once you start feeling really good where you can start moving again, that's when you want people around you."
At this point, it's unknown whether Poythress will be in attendance when No. 1 UK (10-0) faces No. 21 North Carolina (6-2) in a game that has taken somewhat of a backseat. The show, as they say, must go on, as difficult as that may be.
"I mean, this is all part of it," Calipari said. "Things happen that you have to deal with and you have to respond to. Next man up and all that, and it's all great coach speak. The reality of it is the fear and the anxiety and all the other stuff that Alex has and we have for him, it's just it zaps you."
How UK will respond emotionally less than 48 hours after Poythress' injury is an unknown, and that doesn't even capture Poythress' impact on the court.
"Nobody can make the plays that he makes," Cauley-Stein said. "He's a freak athlete. (He) does special things you can't replace. So now we've just got to figure out how to play differently. That's going to be the biggest thing is how we're going play now, what lineups are we going to use if we still use the platoon system, and if we do, just make it work."
Speculation, as Cauley-Stein suggested, has immediately shifted to whether Calipari will stick to the platoon system. Could he simply plug Derek Willis into Poythress' spot on the first platoon with Tyler Ulis and Devin Booker likely to return to the rotation after practicing Thursday? Will he keep the platoons but mix them up? Might he abandon them altogether?
Since his primary focus to this point has been the mental state of Poythress and the team at large, Coach Cal simply doesn't know yet.
"We'll figure some stuff out in practice," Calipari said. "See what we look at. We're just practicing and I'll watch and I'll get a feel for it. I also don't want to throw guys to the wolves. I don't want to do that to them. That's not fair. But we'll figure that out."
There's only so much of that can be done in practice.
"Some of this is going to be just throwing -- at some point, 'All right, let's try this lineup, see how they work,' " Calipari said. "I've got to be willing to do it. There's going to be some ups and downs. We'll probably get dinged some. I hope not Saturday, but it could be Saturday."
It could be Saturday because the Tar Heels come to town playing good basketball. With preseason All-American Marcus Paige leading the way, Coach Cal expects North Carolina to present a major challenge.
"This is going to be a terrific basketball game," Calipari said. "They should be 8-0. The game they lost to Butler, they had every chance to win it. And the game they lost to Iowa, they had the game and Iowa made a couple plays down the stretch and beat them. But, they easily could be 8-0. This could be again another top-10 team we're playing with a different bounce of the ball."
Once the ball begins bouncing on Saturday, the Cats will try to put aside everything they've dealt with in the previous two days.
Well, almost everything. They're not about to forget their brother.
"It's just play," Cauley-Stein said. "Play hard. Everything else will--the Xs and Os will take care of itself. Everybody's just gotta play hard and play for him. For the rest of the time, that's what the motive is now. We're trying to do this with him and still have him a part of it."
When two sets of five-man platoons aren't enough, it pays to be the 12th man (in terms of minutes played) on the No. 1 team in America. For Derek Willis and the rest of the Kentucky Wildcats, opportunities are only what are made of them.
"I'm just trying to take advantage of my opportunity," said Willis. "Devin (Booker) and Tyler (Ulis) are out, so I was called to step up. I'm just out there playing."
With Booker and Ulis -- who together compose the backcourt of Kentucky's White Platoon -- sidelined by injury, Willis was counted on for important minutes down the stretch of Wednesday's tight matchup with Columbia University. The Cats won the game 56-46, while Willis shined in the process.
"Derek was really good today," said head coach John Calipari. "I thought Derek was outstanding."
As a result of the self-sacrificial, all-for-one mentality that Calipari has instilled in his 12-deep rotation, what's reflected in the box score may not accurately represent the impact of each Kentucky player. Willis' five points (on 2 of 2 free-throw shooting and a made 3) and one offensive rebound came in only nine minutes on the floor. In a dismal shooting performance as a team, only two Wildcats scored in double figures. Without Willis' noteworthy performance, the Cats' undefeated record may have been in jeopardy.
"If my opportunity comes up," said Willis, "I'm just going to play my game and just help the team."
Though Willis' first two years in Lexington have been spent mostly learning from the sideline, the 6-foot-9 Mt. Washington, Ky. native continues to prepare for each game with a starter's mentality.
"You go from playing your whole life, starting your whole life, and now you're on probably one of the most unbelievable teams ever made," Willis said. "If you have that mentality of whenever my opportunity comes up, you just take advantage of it and you're always ready."
Like most major collegiate athletes, Willis admits aspirations of one day playing at the next level. With more performances like his on Wednesday, stat sheets will start to matter a lot less than the Wildcats' win total.
"If you can play basketball, (NBA executives) know you can score," Willis said. "So they're looking at defense and rebounding, and all the intangibles that a lot of players don't do, or don't really recognize."
Thanks to Kentucky's crowed roster of nine McDonald's All-Americans, Willis has already tasted the effects of playing alongside top-to-bottom talent.
"The dudes in the NBA that don't play, they're still working out an hour before (the game)," said Willis. "Then, after the game, they put another hour in."
With No. 21 North Carolina on the horizon and Ulis and Booker's uncertain status, Willis may not have seen the last fruits of his labor.
"If Devin can't play and Tyler does play (Saturday versus UNC), then Derek will be the two on that team," Calipari said of UK's second rotation. "He'll be the other player."
The Wildcats and Tar Heels will square off Saturday at noon at Rupp Arena. The game will be televised on CBS. Carolina won last season's contest 82-77 in Chapel Hill, and lead the all-time series 23-13. However, Calipari is 3-2 versus North Carolina since taking over at Kentucky.
With underdog Columbia jumping out to an 11-0 lead in the opening minutes, the lack of energy quickly spread to the crowd.
The Wildcats never did manage to find their fastball, but Trey Lyles was the player who came the closest to getting them there.
"Great motor," Calipari said of the 6-foot-10 freshman. "Great motor."
Lyles' numbers as No. 1 UK overcame two 11-point first-half deficits to move to 10-0 against the visiting Lions with a 56-46 win don't exactly jump off the box score, but his impact did. His seven points, 10 rebounds, two assists and two blocks would have looked better had he made a couple more shots from in close, but his approach was the game-changer.
"I just went out there and played with energy and tried to help the team in any way I could," Lyles said.
With Tyler Ulis and Devin Booker out on Wednesday due to injury, UK's two-platoon system couldn't work quite as intended. Coach Cal said that contributed to the Cats' inability to move from the malaise, but a second-half shake-up helped them take control after trailing by two at halftime.
Lyles started the second half in place of Alex Poythress, his first-platoon counterpart, the latest proof of Calipari's "it's not communism" tenet with the system.
"Boom, out," Calipari said. "Trey, go. I mean, it's not real hard. The way we're doing this, the only thing I'm asking is, play with a high motor, really play with energy, clap, be enthusiastic, play."
Lyles, even with his McDonald's All-American pedigree and months into his college career, has come to grasp exactly that.
"That's just what I need to do and what he wants from me," said Lyles, who played a season-high 30 minutes. "I have to do that for the team, it's what the team needs. I'm not the only guy. Marcus Lee does the same thing. Alex does the same thing. We all just have to contribute in some way."
Lyles' biggest contributions on Wednesday came on the glass.
With shots not falling - particularly not from 3, where UK hit just 2 of 17 - there were ample opportunities for offensive rebounds, but the Cats weren't capitalizing as often as they normally do in the first half. At halftime, UK had just a 17-15 edge on the boards in spite of a significant size advantage.
To turn it around, Calipari turned to a group that's rarely played together this season, if ever.
"Trey Lyles went after the ball," Calipari said. "I went to a different lineup. Dakari (Johnson) and Karl(-Anthony Towns) weren't getting balls, so I went with Willie and Marcus Lee and we started getting rebounds. You know, this was one of those games where Marcus and Willie were the two that broke the game open. With Trey and, you know, the two guards with Derek Willis. Those seven broke the game open playing that way."
The stretch in which they did it came from the 16:18 mark of the second half to 1:39 left in the game. The Cats outscored Columbia 25-7 in that time, turning a three-point deficit into a 15-point lead. In the process, they paved the way for a 24-13 second-half rebounding edge.
Lyles, of course, had a lot to do with that, though he'd also tell you he has plenty to work on.
"I'm doing all right," Lyles said. "I'm missing too many shots, but that's on me to get in the gym and keep working on it. When shots aren't falling I have to do other things such as rebound and play with energy."
He's got that part taken care of.