There have been many great players and many great people to play for the University of Kentucky, but none quite like Willie Cauley-Stein, who was both. In his three seasons at UK, he transformed from an athletic project, raw but with potential, to the best defender in the country and a Player of the Year finalist. Off the court, he marched to the beat of his own drum, and for that, and his time volunteered around the community, he became a fan favorite.
Today we said goodbye to Willie Cauley-Stein when he announced he will enter this summer’s NBA Draft, forgoing his final season of college basketball. He leaves behind a storied career at Kentucky, beginning with an NIT loss in his freshman season followed by back-to-back trips to the Final Four, both ending in heartbreak. His experience was one he said he will never forget, and every fan across Big Blue Nation can say the same.
So tonight, as both parties move on, let’s look back at how we will forever remember Willie Cauley-Stein:
— Kentucky’s 25th consensus All-American, having earned first team All-American honors from the Associated Press, National Association of Basketball Coaches, the Sporting News, and United States Basketball Writers Association.
— The first player in school history to collect 200 or more career blocks and 100 or more career steals. Also one of eight players in program history to have 500 or more rebounds, 100 or more blocks, and 75 or more steals.
— These glasses:
— This hair:
— And this shirt:
— His ferocious dunks that killed opposing players from a number of schools, including Florida, LSU and Cincinnati. Each one of those are in the conversation for best dunks in the history of the program.
— His ability to guard all five positions, whether it be protecting the rim or stepping outside on a switch and locking down the other team’s biggest scoring threat. Maybe his best defensive play of his career: tipping Jerian Grant’s lethal stepback jumper to force a shot clock violation on the Irish’s most important possession of the Elite Eight game. Grant said afterward, “I think that was one of my best step-backs of the night, and I felt like I had created a lot of space.”
— His injured ankle… and this scooter:
— A first team All-SEC Selection, SEC Defensive Player of the Year and SEC Tournament MVP as a junior.
— The Energy Bus, his favorite book. He hated reading when he got to Kentucky, so he and Coach Cal started a book club. Cal would assign him one book every week and the two would sit down and discuss it when he was done.
— The fact that he played football in high school. Did you know he played football in high school?
— For reasons beyond me, some fans felt the need to tattoo his face on their leg:
— That time he explained his plans to survive a zombie apocalypse and how the Wildcat Lodge is a dangerous place to be should one occur while he’s at UK. “There’s only a couple ways out and too much glass,” he said. “There’s too many glass windows and you can’t get past that.”
— His willingness to go out into the community and put smiles on the faces that needed it most. For every story we heard, there are probably three or four more that went untold.
— He flirted with what would’ve been the second triple-double in UK’s history with 15 points, eight rebounds and career-high nine blocks against Providence in 2013-14. He had two games with nine blocks in his career, a little over a week apart.
— That time he wore a GoPro during UK’s 2014 NCAA Tournament run:
— When he could’ve bolted to the NBA as a sophomore but stayed for one more year. “I love school. I love being at Kentucky,” he said of the decision. “I love the fan base. I love the community. I love the people there. So it’s like, why not stay until they make you leave?” His decision to stick around for another shot at the title played a big role in the Harrisons deciding to stay a week later.
— After passing on the NBA the first time, following his freshman season at UK, he told reporters, “I’m still a kid. I’m not ready to pay taxes.”
— The fact that he played football in high school, a wide receiver nonetheless. Did you know this?
— The way he stared down his opponents after big plays:
— And undoubtedly his most impressive feat at the University of Kentucky, the time he swam the length of the infinity pool and back in the Bahamas without coming up for air. I’ll never forget it.
Thanks for everything, Willie. Make us proud in the NBA, so we can rub it in Chris Webber’s face.