LEXINGTON, Ky. — The airfare had been purchased, the room at the five-star hotel reserved.
Still, as he packed his bags for his official visit to Kentucky in October of 2011, something didn't feel right to Willie Cauley-Stein.
"Cancel the trip," the apprehensive high school senior said to his guardian, former NFL lineman Will Shields. "I don't wanna go."
More than 600 miles away from Cauley-Stein's home near Kansas City, John Calipari and his assistants were prepping for the 7-footer's arrival in Lexington, where he'd have dinner with the coaching staff, hobnob with former-Wildcats-turned-NBA-lottery-picks John Wall and DeMarcus Cousins, and sit courtside for Big Blue Madness, the official kickoff to Kentucky's season.
It was the type of weekend that would've made Cauley-Stein the envy of almost every basketball recruit in America, three days of hero treatment from the fans and coaches of a program fresh off a Final Four berth and on the cusp of a national championship. Calipari—who had produced seven first-round draft picks the previous two seasons—had already offered Cauley-Stein a scholarship.
Something, though, was making the high school senior hesitant to accept—let alone go on his visit.
"Even as we were driving to the airport," Shields said, "it was clear he didn't want to get on that plane. He was thinking, 'This is Kentucky. Am I good enough? Can I really hang with these guys?'"
Cauley-Stein has asked himself those questions a lot during the past three years.
He committed to the Wildcats a few weeks after his visit, but as Rivals' 40th-ranked senior in the country, he was often regarded as an afterthought, "the other guy" in a Kentucky recruiting haul that included three top-15 players, including No. 1 overall prospect Nerlens Noel.
NBA scouts who have pegged him as a lottery pick dote on Cauley-Stein's rare blend of athleticism and speed and drop their jaws when he outruns guards in conditioning drills at the end of practice, but Cauley-Stein doesn't consider it a big deal.
He's started 42 contests over two-plus years for a program that reached last season's national title game and is expected to do so again this season, yet he seems to view his career thus far as lackluster.
"I just feel like I haven't really done much," Cauley-Stein tells Bleacher Report. "I don't think I'm as good as people say."
"If I am," he said, "I haven't shown it."
Cauley-Stein hopes this is the season when things change, the moment when the self-doubt vanishes, the time when he finally makes significant progress toward that high ceiling his coaches long for him to reach.
No longer is Cauley-Stein tagged as a "project" like he was as a freshman. And the bouts of inconsistency that defined his sophomore season aren't acceptable anymore. Now a battle-tested junior, Cauley-Stein won't have any excuses if he fails or underwhelms.
"I guess you could say there's a little more pressure on me now," Cauley-Stein said. "If I don't show that I've been working on my game—if I don't prove that I've gotten better — I'm going to take a lot of criticism.
"People are going to say I'm a bust."
Yes, on a team filled with nine McDonald's All-Americans—he isn't one of them—it's time for Cauley-Stein to show he belongs. It's something he's determined to prove to Kentucky's fans and coaches.
And to himself.
Shortly after the conclusion of last season, Willie Cauley-Stein approached his grandmother with a serious question.
"Granny," he asked Norma Stein, "would you be mad if I didn't go to the NBA?"
Despite being sidelined with an ankle injury during the Final Four, Cauley-Stein had shown enough promise as a sophomore to be tagged a potential lottery pick in the 2014 NBA draft. Still, when he posed that question to Norma, Cauley-Stein wasn't debating whether he should turn pro that summer.
"He wanted to know what I'd think if he didn't turn pro at all—as in, ever," Norma said. "For a while he was really gung-ho about the NBA. I still think he wants to go. But he's just interested in so many different things besides basketball."
Indeed, chat with Cauley-Stein long enough, and you'll likely hear about his desire to start his own clothing line.
The guy who wears bow ties and cutoff sweatpants likes to watch zombie movies and has been known to ride a skateboard to class. His former roommate, Alex Poythress, joked last year that Cauley-Stein is often in "La La Land."
During a recent conversation with Bleacher Report, the topics that made Cauley-Stein perk up the most were, one, his days as a football standout at Olathe (Kansas) Northwest High School, and two, using his pedestal as a Kentucky athlete to touch and influence others.
"I want to change lives," he said.
As for basketball?
Cauley-Stein enjoys the game.
"But I don't know if he loves it," said Shields, the guardian. "He hasn't been bitten by the basketball bug yet."
In some ways that's understandable.
Cauley-Stein's path to Kentucky was unorthodox compared to the ones taken by his past and current teammates, many of whom were being groomed for college and pro basketball careers before they finished elementary school.
Cauley-Stein didn't silently wish to become an NBA player when he blew out the candles each year on his birthday cake, a practice Noel began at age 8. He didn't spend his childhood traversing the country on the AAU circuit like the Harrison twins or working out with personal coaches and trainers as Julius Randle did.
Those opportunities weren't available in Spearville, a one-grocery-store farming town in Southwest Kansas. Nicknamed the "City of Windmills," Spearville boasts 813 residents, many of whom gather at the Truck Stop the morning after Kentucky games to drink coffee and reminisce about their hometown hero.
"Everyone around here remembers Willie," Val Stein said. "People here used to be either for KU or K-State. Now there are a lot of Kentucky fans, too."
Cauley-Stein's mother, Marlene, was raised in Spearville and met his father, Willie, shortly after high school in nearby Dodge City, where both were standout college basketball players. Marlene played for now-defunct St. Mary of the Plains, an NAIA school; Willie starred for Dodge City Community College before moving on to Pittsburg State.
The two were never married, and Cauley-Stein's dad fell out of the picture a few years after his birth, when Marlene was hired as a dental assistant in Oklahoma City. So demanding was Marlene's work schedule that she often left young Willie and his older brother, Bryce—who were four and eight at the time—at the apartment by themselves with no supervision.
"It just wasn't safe," Norma Stein said, "so the boys moved back to Spearville to live with us until she got back on her feet. But by the time she was ready to take them back a few years later, they had made all new friends and were happy.
"They didn't want to leave."
So they didn't.
Raised by his grandparents, Cauley-Stein quickly grew accustomed to small-town life. Most days during the summer—while basketball prodigies from bigger cities were traveling the globe—his routine involved stopping by the grocery store to buy a Twix and then heading to the community pool to flirt with the lifeguards.
"They were way older than me," he said, "but it was still fun."
In the fall Cauley-Stein played quarterback for Spearville's eight-man football team and had visions of being a signal-caller in college. But when he grew seven inches the summer before his freshman year—making him 6'6" as a 13-year old—it became obvious that he should channel more of his energy toward basketball.
So much bigger was Cauley-Stein than the rest of his opponents that Norma took his birth certificate with her to each of his games in case someone questioned his age. Fearful that his size and strength might injure a smaller opponent, Cauley-Stein said he often shied away from contact. And he took more pleasure in watching his teammates score than in tallying 20 or 30 points.
It was an early sign of the passive, laid-back nature that sometimes hinders Cauley-Stein today.
In some ways, Louie Konrade isn't surprised. Konrade was a father figure to Cauley-Stein in Spearville, serving not only as his youth league baseball and basketball coach but also as a mentor and friend.
Konrade said he was able to get the best out of Cauley-Stein when he yelled at him and challenged him during the summers. But then the junior high or high school season would roll around, and Spearville would lose to the same groups of boys they had defeated three or four months earlier.
Carson Konrade, Louie's son, was one of Cauley-Stein's teammates.
"Carson would come home from practice frustrated," Konrade said. "He'd be, like, 'Dad, this isn't right. Willie isn't doing anything. He should have 20 points and four or five dunks a game. He's just coasting.'"
The problem, Konrade said, was that people were so in awe of Cauley-Stein that they coddled him, almost as if he were a celebrity.
As a 10th-grader he'd take calls from college recruiters in the middle of class, Konrade said. He loafed through conditioning drills in sports and was rarely held accountable by his coaches.
"And if he was struggling in a class, someone found a way to make everything OK," Konrade said. "They were using him. They were trying to further themselves through Willie. They knew he was going to be important and they wanted to stay in good with him, so they just did everything for him. They didn't make him earn anything.
"You had to get in his face for him to produce, but they wouldn't do that. They wouldn't push him."
Things changed the summer before Cauley-Stein's junior year, when he spent most of his time 300 miles away in Kansas City playing for the prestigious AAU travel squad, MoKan Elite. The exposure to college coaches and the opportunity to play against top-flight competition was priceless for Cauley-Stein, but there was one problem.
According to Cauley-Stein, his grandparents and Konrade, Spearville operated under a different, more stringent grading scale than most high schools. After two years of classes it was clear Cauley-Stein would have virtually no chance of qualifying for a Division I scholarship if he remained at Spearville.
Shields—whose son, Shavon, also played on the AAU team and had become one of Cauley-Stein's best friends—offered to help. Cauley-Stein could live with him and his family over the next few years and get his academics in order while playing football and basketball at Olathe Northwest High School, about a five-hour drive from Spearville.
Not wanting to leave his friends, Cauley-Stein balked at the idea.
"But it really wasn't my choice," he said, laughing. "The decision was pretty much made for me."
Norma Stein said she "bawled for a month straight" after sending Cauley-Stein to live with the Shields family. But she and her husband, Val, knew it was the right thing to do.
"With what he wanted for his future...he wasn't going to get it here in Spearville," said Val, sitting a few feet from the kitchen where Cauley-Stein used to eat Norma's homemade pickles and slather peanut butter over his pancakes. Cauley-Stein's chihuahuas, Babbs and Skip, are sound asleep on the living room floor, snoring.
"Willie loved Spearville, but big-name coaches weren't going to travel all the way out here, to a town of 800 people, to watch him play. Deep down, he realized that."
Konrade, who talks with Cauley-Stein regularly, put it more succinctly.
"It was the best move he ever made," Konrade said. "That decision changed his life."
He hadn't even unpacked his bags and, already, Willie Cauley-Stein was in trouble.
It was his first night as an official member of the Shields household, and everyone was outside for a neighborhood block party. After an hour or so, though, Willie and Shavon went to hang out with a girl who lived down the street. No harm in that—except they didn't tell anyone.
"When my wife, Senia, found them, she lit into them so bad," Will Shields said. "She was screaming and yelling right in front of everyone and even more once they got home.
"Willie still talks about that night. He tells her, 'You went off on me so bad. I'll never forget that for the rest of my life.'"
For a teenager who had grown used to getting his way, it was a jolting experience—and it wouldn't be the last.
Willie and Shavon had midnight curfews, even on the weekends. If Cauley-Stein made more than one C on his report card, his cell phone was taken away. The Shields kept close tabs on his whereabouts and asked questions about his friends.
"With my grandparents, it was almost like a hippie lifestyle," Cauley-Stein said. "I could do whatever I wanted. If I didn't want to do my homework, I didn't do it. With the Shields, I had tutors after practice and after school.
"It was miserable for me at first."
Within two weeks, Cauley-Stein placed a call to Norma.
"Granny," he said, "I wanna come home."
But Norma and Val wouldn't let him, and eventually, things began to get better. The enrollment at Olathe Northwest was bigger than the entire town of Spearville, and Cauley-Stein began making friends and developing a social life that went beyond going to the pool or playing video games at a friend's house.
Academically, Cauley-Stein began to excel as Senia arranged for him to get extra help while making sure he was taking all of the classes (including some during the summer) he needed to qualify for a Division I scholarship.
And when it came to discipline, slip-ups were rare for Cauley-Stein, mainly because he knew he'd have to deal with Shields, who was intimidating both because of his 6'3", 315-pound frame ("I'd never seen someone that big," Cauley-Stein said) and Shields' habit of staring at someone when he was upset. ("I was scared of him at first.")
"I tried to stay outside the circle," said Shields, the NFL's Man of the Year in 2003. "I was just the enforcer who kicked him back in bounds when he went out of play.
"It was a tricky situation, because he was ours, but he wasn't ours. At any time he could've just said, 'Hey, I'm moving back home.' You want to push them and give them as much structure as you can, but you also don't want them to go into a shell and disappear."
Cauley-Stein did the opposite.
Disheartened as he was that a transfer rule prohibited him from playing football as a junior, he maintained an upbeat attitude, worked out with the team and then caught 57 passes for 1,140 yards and 14 touchdowns as a senior after switching to wide receiver.
Most defenders didn't have a chance against a 7-foot receiver.
Cauley-Stein also played defensive back that season. After delivering a crushing tackle in one game, Cauley-Stein trotted back toward the line of scrimmage only to see his future coach, John Calipari, pumping his fist and exchanging a high-five with his former assistant Orlando Antigua on the sideline, where both had been watching the game.
Calipari and Antigua knew they were on the cusp of landing someone special. Labeling Cauley-Stein as a "hidden gem" would be a stretch, but for a 7-footer with freakish athleticism, he was as downplayed as you can be. Cauley-Stein averaged 15.8 points and 8.5 rebounds as a junior at Olathe Northwest, but local schools such as Kansas, Wichita State and Missouri hardly showed interest.
When word began to spread in Kansas City that he was being recruited by Kentucky, some who had seen him play expressed their disbelief on Internet message boards, where they referred to him as "soft" and mentioned his lack of an offensive game.
Calipari, though, didn't care about Cauley-Stein's reputation.
"I didn't want him for what he was," Calipari said. "I wanted him for what he could become."
Two years into his time at Kentucky, on a weekday afternoon, Willie Cauley-Stein received a phone call from Orlando Antigua.
"What in the world is wrong with you?" the assistant coach said.
Knowing he'd done nothing wrong, Cauley-Stein asked Antigua what he was talking about.
"Coach O was like, ‘Why would you dye your hair blond? It's all over the Internet,'" Cauley-Stein said. "I couldn't believe it. I had literally only had it blond for about two hours, and I hadn't gone anywhere."
As much as he loves Kentucky, Cauley-Stein is still uncomfortable under the magnifying glass that hovers over Kentucky's players 24 hours a day.
He walks out of the Wildcat Coal Lodge, and there are fans waiting for autographs. A trip to the mall is interrupted by requests for pictures. He tells someone about his passion for drawing, and it's discussed ad nauseam during a broadcast. He wears a flashy, colorful shirt while sitting out with an injury and then has to answer 10 questions about it after the game.
At times, Cauley-Stein is annoyed by the spotlight and views it at a nuisance. But he also appreciates its benefits.
"It's crazy," Cauley-Stein said, "because people look at you like, 'Dang, that's Superman.' But I'm like, 'No I'm not. I'm just a regular dude like you.'
"You've got the power to change people's lives, just by talking to them for a few minutes or by smiling at them. It makes you feel kinda weird, but it can also make you feel really good."
As well as he's adjusted to life at Kentucky off the court—he and Calipari once had their own "book club"—Cauley-Stein is still a work in progress on it.
A part-time starter as both a freshman and sophomore, Cauley-Stein averaged 7.5 points and 6.1 rebounds in his first two years as a Wildcat. Last season he was named to the SEC All-Defensive team after blocking 106 shots (2.9 per game), the second-highest single-season total in school history.
Defensively, NBA scouts say Cauley-Stein is already good enough to be a pro, which likely was the reason he was tagged as a potential lottery pick in last summer's draft. Cauley-Stein, though, said he hardly felt ready to leave Kentucky after just two years—especially after missing the Final Four last spring with an ankle injury.
"The injury played into me coming back a little bit," he said. "But mainly, I didn't wanna be just another dude that goes into the league and blocks shots and gets lobs and plays defense. I want to contribute in other ways, too, but I've got to get better.
"If I'm going to do it—if I'm going to go to the NBA—I want to do it right."
Kentucky's coaches hope he eventually will.
Wildcats assistant Kenny Payne, who was heavily involved in Cauley-Stein's recruitment, dotes on his 7'2" wingspan, his timing on blocked shots, his speed and coordination, and his ability to defend all five positions.
"He'll end up guarding a point guard on a switch, and we won't worry one bit," Payne said. "You just don't see a guy with his size that move his feet like that. There's nothing he can't do.
"He doesn't fully grasp how special he is, how good he can be."
A scouting report of Cauley-Stein posted on Draftexpress.com in October noted that he ran three-quarters the length of the court last summer in 3.15 seconds, a mark comparable to the one NBA All-Star Dwight Howard posted before turning pro. It also mentioned how Cauley-Stein bench-pressed 185 pounds 19 times, which goes against the theory that he lacks physical strength. The fact that Cauley-Stein has just 6 percent body fat is remarkable for someone who has gained 30 pounds since entering college.
"There's no question that Willie Cauley-Stein is currently the gold standard [for] athletic ability when it comes to centers in the college game," the report said.
The key is coaxing Cauley-Stein's talent out of him. Just as he did in Spearville and Olathe, he continues to need an extra nudge when, as Payne puts it, those "laid-back, small-town country ways" begin to resurface.
"Sometimes," Cauley-Stein said, "I don't feel like I deserve to be good because I don't work as hard as I should. I'm not going balls to the wall like I should be, so I think I don't deserve to have success.
"Some weeks I'll go super-hard at practice for two straight days, but then the third day, something happens away from basketball and I'll lose focus. I'll say, 'I just want to get through practice. I don't want to conquer it today.' But then I'll go home and realize I missed a chance to get better, and it'll bother me."
Ten games into his junior year, Cauley-Stein clearly appears to be playing with a purpose for the No. 1-ranked and undefeated Wildcats. He seems to be in attack mode more than he's been in the past, hunting shots and looking to score on one end of the court while carrying himself with a newfound swagger on the other end.
There's no question Cauley-Stein has been Kentucky's best player so far.
His statistics (10.3 points, 6.9 rebounds and 1.6 blocks) may appear pedestrian, but they also do not account for the facts that he plays just 24.1 minutes per game and is surrounded in every direction by future pros who want to show off their skill sets too.
In what was easily his best game to date in a Kentucky uniform, Cauley-Stein scored a career-high 21 points, snared 12 rebounds, blocked three shots and collected five steals in last week's victory over previously unbeaten Texas.
"I'm a more confident player—although I'm still not all that confident," Cauley-Stein said. "But at least now, you can throw the ball to me and I know what I'm going to do with it. Before, if it wasn't a clean dunk, I'd pass it. Now I'll shoot it every time."
That bravado looms large not only for Cauley-Stein's future, but Kentucky's as well.
"Sometimes he does [feel added pressure]," Norma Stein said of her grandson. "He just feels like he'll let people down if he doesn't get where they think he should be."
Just as he did before his Kentucky visit as a high school senior, Willie Cauley-Stein recently experienced a time when he didn't want to get on an airplane.
It happened a few days prior to last season's Final Four in North Texas. His ankle injury had ended Cauley-Stein's season one week earlier in the Sweet 16, and he didn't think he could stomach sitting on the bench as his teammates competed in the Final Four.
"There's no reason for me to go," he said during a phone call with Konrade. "I can't do anything. They don't need me. It'll be too tough."
Cauley-Stein, though, went on the trip and sat on the team bench during the Wildcats' loss to Connecticut in the NCAA title game. The experience was every bit as gut-wrenching as Cauley-Stein imagined, mainly because he felt his presence may have changed the outcome.
Although his injury would've prevented him from doing individual pre-draft workouts with NBA teams (thus, potentially hurting his stock), Cauley-Stein said the main reason he opted to return for his junior year was to help the Wildcats complete some unfinished business.
"I don't know if he even realizes it," Shields said, "but by coming back, he showed something he hadn't shown in the past. Watching your team lose from the sideline and then having the perseverance to rehab and come back for another year when you didn't even have to...that's hunger, man. That's determination."
As much as any time during his career, Cauley-Stein will need to exhibit those traits when Kentucky hosts North Carolina on Saturday. The Tar Heels boast a collection of post players that could at least throw a scare into Kentucky's vaunted frontcourt.
Whether it means driving to the basket against Tar Heels standout Brice Johnson or battling hefty forward Kennedy Meeks for a rebound, Cauley-Stein will have an opportunity to prove to coaches, fans and NBA scouts the main thing he questioned upon signing with Kentucky three years ago.
That he's good enough.
That he belongs.
"I haven't peaked at all," Cauley-Stein said. "There's still so much more I can do."
Jason King covers college sports for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @JasonKingBR.