Kentucky Basketball: Is Willie Cauley-Stein the Nation's Best Defensive Big Man?

Thad NovakCorrespondent IJanuary 3, 2014

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As the successor to Anthony Davis and Nerlens Noel at Kentucky, Willie Cauley-Stein had a lot to live up to on the defensive end of the floor. Remarkably, even while his Wildcats teammates have struggled to slow down opposing scorers, Cauley-Stein has extended his predecessors’ legacy and put himself in the discussion for the best low-post defender in the college game.

After blocking 2.1 shots per game as Noel’s sidekick last season, Cauley-Stein is up to fifth in the nation with 4.1 rejections a night as a sophomore. Of that top five, he’s also the only one who’s recording more than one steal per game, a testament to the former high school wide receiver’s combination of quickness and length.

Cauley-Stein's rebounding is just one facet of his phenomenal all-around defense.
Cauley-Stein's rebounding is just one facet of his phenomenal all-around defense.Mark Zerof-USA TODAY Sports

Indeed, even the 'Cats—with their wealth of NBA prospects—have nobody with more raw athleticism than the center who leads them in rebounding (8.2 per contest) as well as blocks and steals. He’s the only impact defender on the country's No. 15 team, putting him under even more pressure than the rest of the nation’s elite rim protectors.

For comparison, the next-best shot-blocker whose team has stuck around in the national rankings is Baylor’s Isaiah Austin, 14 spots behind Cauley-Stein on the block charts.

Cauley-Stein’s value to the ‘Cats is increased still more by his ability to make life easier for frontcourt partner Julius Randle. Not only does his lack of offensive aggression dovetail nicely with Randle’s high-scoring style, but his defensive dominance lets Randle conserve his energy rather than banging with an opponent’s top low-post threat.

On top of the responsibility he’s carrying, the other factor that makes Cauley-Stein stand out is the competition he’s faced. His Wildcats have played four ranked opponents already, nearly as many as the combined total played by all four players ahead of him on the shot-blocking lists (five).

There’s still work to be done on Cauley-Stein’s defensive game, especially when it comes to rebounding, where he’s actually more adept on the offensive glass than on D. However, his combination of power (244 pounds) and mobility is unmatched even at the top level of collegiate post play.

Arizona State’s Jordan Bachynski, the national leader in blocks with 4.9 per game and a dominant rebounder at 9.5 boards a night, is the only big man who could be said to have an obvious statistical edge on Cauley-Stein.

However, when you factor in the Kentucky star’s versatility and performance under pressure against the top offenses in the country, it’s safe to say that the best defensive post player in college hoops wears Wildcats blue.