Kentucky Basketball: Should Willie Cauley-Stein Be a Starter?

Bobby ReaganFeatured ColumnistNovember 14, 2013

Nov 4, 2013; Lexington, KY, USA; Kentucky Wildcats forward Willie Cauley-Stein (15) shoots a free throw during the game against the Montevallo Falcons at Rupp Arena. Kentucky defeated Montevallo 95-72. Mandatory Credit: Mark Zerof-USA TODAY Sports
Mark Zerof-USA TODAY Sports

This might come as a surprise after numerous media members have said Kentucky is too inexperienced to win right now. But Kentucky should start five freshmen.

More importantly and specifically, Willie Cauley-Stein should be benched in favor of Dakari Johnson. 

The fact of the matter is Cauley-Stein is made to be a bench player. He thrives off of energy, is a defensive presence, blocks shot and his offensive game is very limited, being really only strong at dunking.

Through three games this season, Cauley-Stein is averaging five points and eight rebounds in 21 minutes of action. On the flip side, Johnson is putting in just under five points and slightly over three rebounds a game while playing 13 minutes a game.

 So why the switch now? 

Nov 1, 2013; Lexington, KY, USA; Kentucky Wildcats center Dakari Johnson (44) passes the ball against the Transylvania Pioneers at Rupp Arena. Kentucky defeated Transylvania 76-42. Mandatory Credit: Mark Zerof-USA TODAY Sports
Mark Zerof-USA TODAY Sports

Simply put, Cauley-Stein can be the energizing big man off the bench since Kentucky head coach John Calipari has rarely played freshman Marcus Lee. Think of the way the Miami Heat use Chris Andersen off the bench. His game is quite comparable to Cauley-Stein, with the Kentucky sophomore being slightly better on the offensive side of the ball.

Both players are defense-first players who attempt to block a lot of shots, grab rebounds and accumulate fouls. There's nothing wrong with that being Cauley-Stein's role, but he isn't a starter for one of the top teams in the country.

Many people will point out the fact that Cauley-Stein is expected to be a lottery pick in the upcoming NBA draft and say that has a lot to do with his potential. What it has to do with is the fact that the Kansas native is 7'1" and athletic. He can finish at the rim, protect the rim and run the floor. Those are all things that NBA scouts fall in love with.

At the collegiate level, Johnson is a better option for the Wildcats in the long term. He provides more offensive power, something that will help take the pressure off of fellow big man Julius Randle and guards James Young and Andrew Harrison.

Coming off the bench has done wonders so far this season for sophomore Alex Poythress. Through three games, Poythress is nearly averaging a double-double and has been Kentucky's second-most productive and consistent player behind Randle. 

Cauley-Stein can do the same exact thing Poythress is doing, but instead of relieving one of the wing players, he will fill in for Johnson and Randle.

With Johnson on the floor, it also allows the Wildcats to run their dribble-drive offense with a little better spacing due to the fact that Johnson has slightly better range with his jumper than Cauley-Stein. This will only help improve Andrew Harrison's growth as a Calipari point guard by having more space to operate.

The switch will also allow Calipari to get more out of Johnson, a McDonald's All-American. Johnson has been able to show his skills once he is comfortable in the game. By starting, it will allow him to adjust to the game by quickly finding out how the refs are calling the game and when to attack offensively. 

Now, this isn't to say Cauley-Stein isn't a good player. He just shouldn't be starting for Kentucky if the Wildcats want to be the best team they are capable of being. Imagine Cauley-Stein coming off the bench and playing similar minutes he is now, but he will be the spark.

Big Blue Nation would erupt the first time he has one of his put-back dunks or swats a shot away at the rim. 

So what do you think? Is Kentucky a better team with Cauley-Stein coming off the bench? It's a risky move starting five freshmen and would certainly grab headlines, but does it benefit the Wildcats?