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Video: Coach Cal's post-UNC press conference

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Video: Cauley-Stein, Ulis, Booker on UNC win

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Video: Battle of the Blue Bloods Intro

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Alex Poythress will miss the remainder of the 2014-15 season with a torn ACL. (Barry Westerman, UK Athletics) Alex Poythress will miss the remainder of the 2014-15 season with a torn ACL. (Barry Westerman, UK Athletics)
Willie Cauley-Stein was clearly in pain.

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 "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."

Battle of the Blue Bloods: UNC promo video

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Video: Coach Cal on Poythress injury, North Carolina

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Derek Willis scored five points in UK's win over Columbia on Wednesday. (Chet White, UK Athletics) Derek Willis scored five points in UK's win over Columbia on Wednesday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
By Connor Link, UK Athletics

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.

Recent Comments

  • CHRIS OSEDO: I love the job Coach Call is doing in UK. I hope my son comes there soon. read more
  • B J Vance: Kudos to the Big Blue Nation who turn out everywhere to cheer the Cats. The very entertaining and knowledgeable Dick read more
  • gerald adams: you done a hell of good job today boys. I,m so prod ove you all for the heart some of read more
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  • JR: Erin is one dedicated player of the game of softball.......and it would be hard to find anyone who has worked read more
  • Commenter: Both Derick and Dominique should watch Willie's game 3 years back. Compared to what Caulistain then these two players are read more
  • Patrick Quinn: I've always liked Willis...we will need him getting significant minutes during our run..I have faith in his athletic ability...I remember read more
  • Robert Sutherland: I Love Dakari both as a player with that great smile, personality, and his support for his teammates...and I love read more
  • Helen Spalding: Congrats Makayla and team. We love you here in Marion County and just "proud as punch" of you and your read more
  • conley salyer: We love you and the women's team,Janee. Our five year old grandson attends every home game, knows your names and read more