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One And Not Done: An Overlooked Part of Kentucky Basketball’s Success

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I sat down to talk with Eric Lindsey and Willie Cauley-Stein earlier this spring about how one-and-done isn’t for everyone at Kentucky.

NBA: Sacramento Kings at Golden State Warriors Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

One-and-done is a phrase that has become the popular topic regarding the Kentucky men’s basketball program.

Critics fail to mention the National Championship, four Final Fours, two Elite Eights, four straight (six total) SEC Tournament crowns and the 80 percent winning percentage head coach John Calipari has brought to the Bluegrass.

But what about “one-and-not-done?” Critics fail to mention the handful of players who spent multiple seasons under Calipari, too. Calipari is guilty of producing 33 NBA players during his time at Kentucky. Twenty-four of those players happen to be first-round draft picks, along with seven going in the second round and two going undrafted but still managing to make an NBA roster.

Leaving out draft position, 11 of the 33 NBA players Calipari has coached have returned for at least one season. With one-and-done being such a popular commodity at Kentucky, most would probably bet the over on 2/3 of Calipari’s players bolting after one year of college.

However, though it isn’t advertised this way, one-and-done isn’t the right path for everyone. There have been multiple players who elevated their draft stock by spending at least an extra year at Kentucky.

Along with their draft stock, it should also be noted that their craft, leadership capabilities and mental toughness grew (substantially) with that extra year(s) of college and NBA preparation with Calipari.

One player who fits the criteria above is Willie Cauley-Stein. Recently, I sat down with the former first-round draft pick to discuss what motivated him to return to UK for multiple seasons as well what his experience was like playing under Calipari.

“I liked the college vibe,” Cauley-Stein said on why he returned. “It was just hoops, you know, you can only get better.”

Cauley-Stein was a Wildcat for three seasons before declaring for the NBA Draft. In those three seasons, he played in some of the biggest games of Calipari’s tenure. Coming in as the 40th overall ranked recruit of ESPN’s Top 100 in 2012, Cauley-Stein was extremely raw.

As a former wide receiver in high school, his hoops game had much room to grow. His freshman season was rather average, as he netted 8.3 points per game and grabbed 6.2 rebounds per game.

A strong draft class and inspiration to expand his game resulted in the young talent electing to return for his sophomore campaign instead of hopping on the one-and-done train.

His sophomore year was rough, though, as his points per game dropped by nearly 20 percent and he failed to start in more than half of the games he played. He did, though, increase his blocks per game by nearly 30 percent and decreased his turnovers per game by more than 50 percent.

That’s not to mention he suffered an ankle injury just prior to the National Championship game. It was enough to sideline the big man for the big game, in which Kentucky fell to the UConn Huskies 60-54. It’s widely believed that despite the down season for Cauley-Stein, the game would have ended in a different result had the big man been healthy.

Kentucky was forced to go with a shorter and younger rotation where Alex Poythress, Dakari Johnson and Marcus Lee combined for just nine points, and shot just 20 percent from the stripe.

It wasn’t long after that until Cauley-Stein finally found his groove. As a junior, he served as the heart and soul of the “platoon team,” which went 38-1. He averaged career highs in points, rebounds, assists and free throw shooting despite his minutes remaining virtually the same as the previous two seasons. It was no coincidence that the quality of his play increased with the presence of the platoon team.

The platoon team was one of, if not the greatest, college basketball team to ever step foot on the hardwood. The team started sophomore guards Aaron and Andrew Harrison, freshmen Karl-Anthony Towns and Trey Lyles along with their junior, Cauley-Stein, manning the middle of the paint.

Their bench was made up of freshmen Devin Booker and Tyler Ulis, along with sophomores Dakari Johnson, Dominique Hawkins and Marcus Lee. The Wildcats also received contributions from sophomore Derek Willis but lost junior Alex Poythress just eight games into the season due to a torn ACL.

That group won the SEC Tournament and reached the Final Four before being edged out by the Wisconsin Badgers in the final minutes. What stood out about the team was it was made up of a wide range of players. Not only did the team possess multiple players of multiple skill sets, but it was also the perfect mix of freshman along with players returning for additional seasons with previous experience under their belt.

“It gave me opportunities to gamble,” Cauley-Stein said of having so many talented teammates. “It allowed me to go out of the box and make plays.”

That was his final year in college, capping off “three years of work” that helped him get to the NBA.

“I figured out the tricks to get through the system,” he said. “I just worked. It was three years of work that helped me get better.

“I came in as an underrated player,” Cauley-Stein said. “People didn’t really know what they were going to get out of me. I was kind of like an open book; like an experiment, man. You have this 7-foot, athletic kid that moves like a guard but is big like a big. Kenny Payne had me doing a lot of guard work. So behind the scenes I was doing a lot of ball handling and passing and things like that that translates to the NBA. People are starting to see me expand my game now, more than anybody else originally thought. Those two years of working with (Payne) and the other coaches were big,”

Echoing his noted hard work at UK, Cauley-Stein has continued that trend with the Sacramento Kings.

“I stay in the gym doing extra work,” he said. “That’s what I learned during my time at Kentucky. If you want to be the best, you have to work twice as hard as everyone else.”

Cauley-Stein gave advice to current, incoming and future Kentucky players, emphasizing that work ethic is a big deal.

“Stay in the gym,” Cauley-Stein said. “Don’t get caught up in the life of college. Have a goal and stick with it.”

Cauley-Stein was selected sixth overall in the 2015 draft by the Kings. In the previous two mock drafts, he had not even been given consideration of the 60 total picks. His play with the platoon team, along with his growth in his third and final year as a Wildcat, certainly paid dividends to his stock in the draft.

The former Kentucky big man is indeed the highest selected player who returned for additional seasons under Calipari. Others who returned before being drafted were Terrence Jones (18th), Tyler Ulis (34th), Doron Lamb (42nd), Andrew Harrison (44th), Josh Harrellson (45th), Darius Miller (46th), Dakari Johnson (48th) and DeAndre Liggins (53rd). Aaron Harrison and Alex Poythress both went undrafted but still managed to find a respective spot on an NBA roster.

Not all, but some of these players had high chances of leaving after just one season under Calipari. Each athlete is in a different situation, though, according to Eric Lindsey (UK’s associate media relations director for the men’s basketball program).

“There’s a bunch of different factors that go into it,” he said. Lindsey said factors could vary from the athlete’s family’s financial situation, what their projection is, how strong the draft is vs. next year’s draft, etc.

Lindsey said that the school isn’t all about the one-and-done strategy, and it’s about what’s best for the player.

“For us, that’s not true at all. That’s not what we teach,” he said. “Do kids when they come here want to make it to the NBA as quick as possible? I’m sure they do. But we make it clear to them of how hard they’re going to have to work.”

Lindsey added that at the end of the season, the program gives each player their opinion and with the new rules, encourages them to “test the waters” at the NBA Draft Combine to get other feedback.

“Whatever they decide, whether it is to stay or go, we will fully support them in any way,” he said.

Lindsey echoed Cauley-Stein's comments of the big man coming to UK a “bit raw.”

“He had a desire to improve his game in a lot of different areas,” Lindsey said. “The path he chose has certainly worked out for him and would certainly work out for others.”

Though the platoon team made life much easier on Cauley-Stein, being a freshman and playing behind two sophomore guards stowed Tyler Ulis in limited minutes. Ulis, however, came back to Kentucky for a second season and put on a monster performance that came with the SEC Player of the Year accolade.

The 5-9 point guard played enormously, averaging over 36 minutes per game and scoring 17.3 points per game while dishing out seven assists and shooting over 48 percent from the field. With an increase of just 13 minutes per game, Ulis tripled his points per game while doubling his assists per game.

“I don’t think anyone was surprised by it,” Lindsey said of Ulis’ breakout sophomore season. “Everyone around here saw he was a special player. He was one of the best floor generals Cal has ever had.”

Considering Calipari has coached former NBA MVP Derrick Rose, All-NBA honoree John Wall and other notable point guards such as Brandon Knight and De’Aaron Fox, those comments put Ulis in elite company.

One factor that prepares Kentucky players more than anyone is the hard work that’s expected from Calipari. Lindsey elaborated on what advice the program gives to players and what they tell them to expect.

“The only advice we give them is to be prepared for this to be the hardest thing they’ve ever done in their life,” he said. “The work ethic that (Calipari) demands is harder than anywhere else in the country. It’s a lot more than putting on a Kentucky uniform and getting in to the NBA.”

Lindsey went on to say that nothing is given nor guaranteed at Kentucky.

“When those meetings happen with the coaches, it’s not ‘hey, we’re gonna get you to the NBA.’ All that we promise is that if you work your tail off, you’ll have an opportunity,” he said.

In his fourth year as the primary contact for the team, Lindsey knows how Kentucky’s tradition-rich program puts a celebrity spotlight on its athletes.

“The spotlight is brighter here than any other school,” he said.

While Calipari has certainly proved he can achieve much success with young talent, there’s no debating that Kentucky wouldn’t have its eighth National Championship banner without a veteran presence.

There’s no “38-and-not-done” with the many veterans on the platoon team. Without Terrence Jones returning for his sophomore season, it’s unlikely Kentucky would have made such a deep tournament run in 2012, either.

One-and-done is no secret at the University of Kentucky. However, neither should be the players like Cauley-Stein and others who return to school not only for their education but also to better their mental toughness, work on their craft and increase their leadership capabilities. Without them, and instead if every player was a one-and-done at the end of the season, Kentucky wouldn’t have the success they proudly boast today.