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Chances to avenge NIT season, improve stock lead Cauley-Stein, Poythress to return to UK

UK fans have become accustomed to freshmen thriving under John Calipari for a season then leaving Lexington for the NBA, but unfinished business led two 2012-13 freshmen to buck that trend.


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Freshmen forwards Willie Cauley-Stein and Alex Poythress were both projected as possible first round picks in the 2013 NBA draft, but the chance to improve their personal games while playing on what could be one of the most impressive collections of talent in college basketball history was too much to pass up.


“I feel like something’s empty, and I want to fill it,” Cauley-Stein said. “Next year we’re going to have a great opportunity to do that.”


“I didn’t want to leave with a bad taste in my mouth,” Poythress said. “You didn’t want to end your college career like that.”


That bad taste resulted from a season that saw UK set many firsts in the Calipari Era of the negative variety. The Cats suffered the first Rupp Arena loss of the Calipari Era then lost a second game at home. After a dropping their SEC Tournament opener for the first time under Calipari, the Cats missed the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2009.


Willie Cauley-Stein plays versus Robert Morris. (Photo by Jon Hale)

The disappoint season then reached new lows with a NIT first-round loss at Robert Morris.


Cauley-Stein and Poythress will look to join with sophomore returner Kyle Wiltjer to put those disappointments behind them. Two more scholarship players, Jarrod Polson and Jon Hood, will graduate in May but still have one year of eligibility remaining.


Cauley-Stein, Poythress and Wiltjer accounted for 39.6 percent of UK’s scoring and 59.2 percent of the team’s rebounding last season.


Now, the trio will join what has been described by some as the best recruiting class ever on a team that has already been ranked No. 1 in preseason polls despite coming off a first-round NIT loss.


Calipari has already signed eight players as part of his 2013 recruiting class, including McDonald’s All-Americans Aaron Harrison, Andrew Harrison, Dakari Johnson, Marcus Lee, Julius Randle and James Young. Kentucky high school standouts Dominique Hawkins and Derek Willis have also signed with UK.


The class may not be finished as UK is a finalist for small forward Andrew Wiggins, who Rivals.com ranks as the No. 1 recruit in the nation.


“The potential is unlimited,” Poythress said. “We can do so good. Whatever we want to do is what we can do. The sky is the limit.”


Poythress and Cauley-Stein know something about the hype and pressure surrounding highly touted recruits when they arrive at UK.


Both players said they will do their best to prepare the newcomers for what to expect.


“Every game you play, it’s hype, it’s a Super Bowl for everyone,” Cauley-Stein said. “I think that’s the biggest thing for those freshmen coming in: you have no time to relax when you step in between those lines. It’s all business when you step in there.”


That sentiment doesn’t mean Cauley-Stein didn’t have fun as a freshman at UK. He noted the chance to return to Lexington where he is a “celebrity” played a major role in his decision.


“I like it around here where people know my name,” he said. “That’s just fun.”


Cauley-Stein, who also played football in high school, was the least heralded member of Calipari’s 2012 recruiting class, but he quickly moved out of the shadow of his classmates while focusing solely on basketball for the first time.


He averaged 8.3 points and 6.3 rebounds per game to go with 60 blocked shots. After the season-ending injury to star freshman Nerlens Noel, Cauley-Stein averaged 9.5 points, 7.7 rebounds and three blocks per game as a starter.


Following the NIT loss, he told reporters he would declare for the draft if his family told him they needed the money, but he sounded like a player who wanted to return to school. Feedback from his coach and family cemented that decision.


“They just said it was up to me,” he said of his family. “They survived this far without whatever I was going to make in the pros, so what’s another year or two.”


Alex Poythress skies for a dunk versus Samford. (Photo by Jon Hale)

Poythress is UK’s leading returning scorer at 11.2 points and 6.0 rebounds per game as a freshman. He showed glimpses of the talent that had led to him at one time being projected as a top-five NBA draft pick with a stretch of four consecutive 20-point games early in the season, but he also frequently drew Calipari’s ire for inconsistent play and effort level.


The chance to define a new reputation was a motivating factor in his decision to return to Lexington.


“Just to prove that I belong, prove that I’m not just potential, that I can do whatever I need to do to help my team win,” he said.


Cauley-Stein noted a major deficiency with the 2012-13 Cats was the lack of returning players who had already been through the fires as major contributors at UK.


With himself, Poythress and Wiltjer returning next season, experience won’t be as big of an issue for the team.


That’s doesn’t mean players are already counting on a championship.


“We had the potential this year and didn’t capitalize on it, so it could easily be we have the best recruiting class coming in and not doing anything with it,” Cauley-Stein said. “It’s that simple. If you don’t come together and do things right then you’re just a bunch of talented kids that don’t get anything accomplished.”

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