The season's first 11 games haven't been kind to the No. 19 Kentucky Wildcats, who'd started the year as the preseason No. 1 team. Of course talks of 40-0 don't allow a team much margin for error, but one aspect of the Wildcats' season that has not disappointed has been the defensive play of Willie Cauley-Stein.
Cauley-Stein, a 7'0 sophomore, has been the Wildcats' primary force in the paint this season, blocking shots at a rate comparable to Kentucky's one-and-done big men of the last two seasons: Anthony Davis in 2011-12 and Nerlens Noel last year.
Cauley-Stein has 48 blocks through 11 games, putting him one block behind Davis' school-record pace through the same number of games. Davis finished with 186 blocks before the New Orleans Pelicans made him the No. 1 pick in the following NBA draft. Davis reached fourth on the Division I single-season list with the benefit of playing 40 games, as Kentucky won the national championship.
Noel was three blocks behind Davis' pace through 23 games last season, but tore his ACL in the 24th game and finished his one college season with 106 blocks. Through 11 games, Noel had 41 blocks.
Cauley-Stein's percentage of blocked shots is higher than both Davis' and Noel's when judged per shot attempt that goes up against the Wildcats. KenPom.com's block percentage statistic factors how many two-point attempts a player blocks for his team while he is on the court, and Cauley-Stein's 14.7 block percentage is higher than Davis' (13.8) and Noel's (13.2). Of course, St. John's Chris Opekpa leads players this season with a staggering 21.9 block percentage.
As long as Kentucky's perimeter defenders struggle to keep in front of their men, drivers will reach Cauley-Stein. One advantage he has is that he's the only big-time shot blocker on the team. Davis had Terrence Jones and Noel had Cauley-Stein. Cauley-Stein's speed at seven feet allows him to reach a lot of shots, and he has been staying out of foul trouble (his three fouls in the first half against North Carolina on Saturday notwithstanding).
Kentucky's next game is against the Belmont Bruins, a trigger-happy team from the perimeter. So Cauley-Stein may not keep pace with Kentucky's historic shot blockers through 12 games. But as the young Wildcats develop, Cauley-Stein's defensive prowess is just the steadying presence Calipari needs.