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February 6, 2013He wondered if everything had changed.
Following minor surgery that caused him to miss four games, Willie Cauley-Stein couldn't keep all the negativity out of his mind. Most of it, yes. But some still creeped in.
"I didn't feel like I was going to be the same player anymore," Cauley-Stein said.
Then he read a book, assigned to him by coach John Calipari. The title: "God Never Blinks: 50 Lessons for Life's Little Detours."
"It kind of got me thinking in the right (state of) mind," Cauley-Stein said.
If anyone, including himself, doubted whether Cauley-Stein could be the same player that had started five straight games before the surgery, he disproved that with a 13-point, six-rebound, 22-minute effort in Kentucky's 77-55 win against South Carolina.
"Unbelievable," Calipari described him. "And you say, 'what did he do?' He just added energy."
And, perhaps, took some away from South Carolina. Coach Frank Martin, known for his demonstrative sideline antics, was resigned to sitting in his seat as the Wildcats took a one-point deficit after 10 minutes, turned it into a 21-point halftime lead and closed out a win that brought them within a game of first place in the SEC.
"I never thought I'd see the day when I saw the opposing team put the crowd to sleep," Martin said.
As for his side, Calipari said Cauley-Stein's tangible energy is something the rest of the team needs to adopt. In assessing the rest of his players, Calipari routinely mentioned a lack of sustained effort.
Even in a game where Kentucky shot 61.4 percent from the floor, its highest mark since the fifth game of the season. Even in a game where five Cats scored in double digits, led by Julius Mays' 15. Even in a game where the Gamecocks were outrebounded by 17 and shot 28.8 percent.
"I must be a jerk," Calipari said.
He wasn't anything but complimentary of Cauley-Stein, who said that, for the first time in a while, he felt uninhibited while playing basketball. The surgery had been to clean up "a loose piece of bone," Cauley-Stein said, that had been discovered after he noticed pain in his left knee from a middle-school injury.
Cauley-Stein said he could feel something moving in his knee at times. He wore a protective sleeve over it during games to keep it in place and reduce the pain. Once it was discovered, Cauley-Stein said, UK's medical staff recommended he remove it now to avoid future complications.
"My mom was telling me that I should probably do it," Cauley-Stein said. "You listen to your mom."
His mom was there for the beginning and stayed through the end. When Kentucky went on the road to play games, he and his mom would watch together from his dorm room bed, ice pack wrapped around his knee.
During practices, Cauley-Stein ran underwater to reduce stress and spent more time lifting weights, concentrating heavily on upper-body workouts.
"We praise Will for coming back," Mays said. "He could have still been sitting out. He worked hard in the rehab."
Cauley-Stein said he had to remind himself during the game that the pain wouldn't be there when he moved, when he jumped. Once that mental block was removed, he said, he felt back to his normal self.
"Tonight, with him coming in and playing the way he did," Mays said, "changed the whole game."