Kentucky Basketball: Why Willie Cauley-Stein Will Be X-Factor in SEC Title Hunt

Nick Nafpliotis@@NickNafster79Correspondent IJanuary 2, 2013

LEXINGTON, KY - DECEMBER 04:  Willie Cauley-Stein #15 of the Kentucky Wildcats blocks a shot during the game against the Samford Bulldogs at Rupp Arena on December 4, 2012 in Lexington, Kentucky. Kentucky won 88-56.  (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
Andy Lyons/Getty Images

Kentucky's loss to arch rival Louisville may have been a setback for in-state bragging rights, but it also showed that this team has improved greatly over the last month. One player who stood out in particular was freshman center Willie Cauley-Stein, who usually comes off the bench but was put into the starting lineup against the Cardinals.

Despite his recent troubles at the foul line, Cauley-Stein's ability to rebound, clean up under the basket, block shots and play aggressive defense was a big reason why the Wildcats were still in the game against Louisville until the end.

If you've watched Kentucky basketball all season, however, this shouldn't have been a surprise. While his stat lines may not always be glamorous, Cauley-Stein brings an intensity and toughness that is sorely needed on this Wildcat team right now.

Whether he is coming off the bench or starting, his play tends to be an indicator of how well the Wildcats will perform. Excluding the loss the Louisville, Kentucky's other three defeats were all in games where Cauley-Stein played his fewest amount of minutes (Duke six, Baylor 13, Notre Dame 18).

While his numbers against Duke and Notre Dame were far and away his weakest of the season, his performance against Baylor (six points, seven rebounds, two blocks) was great...except for the fact that he was in foul trouble for most of the game.

With the exception of an off night that he had against Lipscomb, Cauley-Stein has had no problem steamrolling weaker competition this season. In the game against the Cardinals, however, he finally proved just how good (and valuable) he could be against top-level competition.

With conference play beginning soon (which will include physical opponents like Alabama and Missouri), the Wildcats will need Cauley-Stein to bring the intense level of play and aggressive defense he showed on Saturday if they want to win back the SEC crown from Vanderbilt...

And it wouldn't hurt for him to improve his 36 percent free-throw shooting, either.

All stats via ESPN.com

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