LEXINGTON, Ky. -- DeMarcus Cousins was simply looking for a place he could be accepted, a school that would embrace his "goofiness" as he put it.
He found all that and more at Kentucky, where the 6-foot-11 center matured into one of the nation's top big men on the court and a beloved eccentric off it.
It was, Cousins says, one of the most "precious" years of his life. It also wasn't enough to keep him from heading to the NBA.
The Southeastern Conference Freshman of the Year is one of five Kentucky underclassmen heading to the NBA after leading the Wildcats to a remarkable turnaround season in John Calipari's first season on the bench. And while the departures of teammate John Wall and Patrick Patterson were almost expected, Cousins wasn't always sure he'd say goodbye so soon.
"When I first got here, I thought I'd be here awhile," Cousins said Thursday. "But as the season progressed, I progressed, and now I'm here."
Cousins talked with agent John Greig sitting just off to his right with Calipari and the rest of the Kentucky coaching staff watching from a nearby table. He spoke emotionally about his season with the Wildcats and understands the atmosphere will be decidedly different at the next level.
"I didn't want to leave this place," Cousins said Thursday. "I could stay here forever ... it was a hard decision."
Yet one Cousins felt he had to make. Most NBA experts have him projected as a top five pick, and he's not sure another year at Kentucky would help as much as it would hurt.
"If I did come back, I could get hurt," he said. "Anything can happen ... my stock is high right now."
So are the stocks of the other Wildcats who are heading to the NBA early. Cousins gave almost all the credit to Calipari.
"He just teaches fast and if you don't get it, you get left behind, which pretty much means you're going to be around for awhile and that's how it is in the league," he said. "They teach fast and if you don't get it, you'll quickly be left behind and quickly be out of the league."
Cousins doesn't plan on going anywhere once he's selected, almost certainly in the top 10. There's even a chance, depending on how the ping pong balls fall in the NBA draft lottery, that he could be selected before Wall.
It's an idea that seemed absurd six months ago, one now that could be a distinct possibility if a team covets Cousins' still-growing 6-foot-11, 270-pound frame more than Wall's speed and dazzling playmaking.
Cousins averaged 15.1 points and 9.9 rebounds per game for the Wildcats, who went 35-3 and won the SEC regular season and conference titles before falling to West Virginia in the regional finals of the NCAA tournament. His numbers are particularly gaudy considering his limited playing time. Cousins was on the court just 23.5 minutes a game, partly because he struggled to stay out of foul trouble early in the season and because the Wildcats won so many blowouts.
He had problems reining in his emotions at times, growing frustrated as overmatched opponents often slapped and pushed him around hoping to get inside his head. Louisville guard Edgar Sosa called Cousins "crazy" after Cousins appeared to swing an elbow at Louisville forward Jared Swopshire during a scrum when the two rivals met in January.
Cousins laughed it off, something he did a lot during his postgame media sessions that sometimes doubled as open mic night at a local comedy club. He would sometimes walk in wearing thick nonprescription glasses -- a tribute to Spiderman alter-ego Peter Parker -- and a fur Russian cap so the Mobile, Ala., native could stave off the cold Central Kentucky nights.
One of the nation's most ardent fan bases ate it up. He says he received 70-80 marriage proposals (none of which he accepted) and went by a handful of nicknames, from "Boogie" to "Big Cuz" to "the Dancing Bear."
He's not quite sure how his personality will go over in an NBA locker room -- "hopefully very well," he said with a laugh -- but didn't think he really had a choice.
Neither did Calipari. While Calipari didn't answer questions on Thursday, Cousins said Calipari practically ordered him to enter the draft.
"He told me it's my time to go," Cousins said, then nodded his head vigorously later when a reporter asked if Calipari "pushed" him out.
He's hopeful next year's version of the Wildcats can do the one thing this year's version couldn't: make the Final Four. Kentucky was the top-seed in the East Region but was upset by second-seeded West Virginia in the regional finals.
The loss still haunts Cousins and the rest of the Wildcats three weeks later, and he appears in no hurry to get over it.
"We were saying, if we could just make two shots," Cousins said. "There was a lot of stuff we said. But that's the past."