Kentucky's key returnee: Willie Cauley-Stein

AP Photo/Dave Martin

Editor's Note: This month, ESPN Insider's college basketball and recruiting experts are teaming up to examine how 15 of the nation's best recruiting classes will fit in with their teams in the 2013-14 season. Today's featured program: KentuckyInsider. Check out the Nation blog each morning for a corresponding post on the key returnee for each of the 15 teams.

Remember when Kentucky freaked everyone out?

It wasn't hard to figure out why. To the untrained eye, Kentucky's 2011-12 national title was the product of nothing more than John Calipari's immense recruiting advantage over everyone else in the sport. To many, the dominant triumph of Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist proved that all Calipari had to do every year was get the best players, coax them into playing his typically stifling defense and let the talent do the rest. He had cracked the code. The sport would never be the same.

A year later, as the Wildcats ended their season in Moon, Pa., in the first round of the NIT, losing to a Northeast Conference team (Robert Morris) that has lost more games in its history than it has won, the noise diverged. Suddenly, Kentucky couldn't recruit; it had missed on Alex Poythress and Archie Goodwin; only pre-ACL tear Nerlens Noel panned out as planned. Or: Maybe you can't win a national title relying on talented freshmen after all! Maybe 2012 was just luck! Ha!

All of this stuff misses the point.

Kentucky 2011-12 wasn't the best team in the country because it comprised only talented freshmen. The freshmen UK did have were special, but just as important were Terrence Jones, Doron Lamb and Darius Miller. None was a freshmen. Jones would have been a lottery pick had he left during the lockout uncertainty. Miller was a fourth-year senior who came off the bench.

The 2012-13 team didn't have any of these things. The freshmen, particularly Poythress and Goodwin, disappointed. But save the inconsistent Kyle Wiltjer, there were no veterans, let alone veteran leaders, to provide any semblance of core consistency, confidence or backbone. When Noel tore his ACL at Florida and UK lost 88-58 at Tennessee, you could just see it. There was nothing there, particularly on the defensive end, where a team's cohesion and heart shine brightest. And the Wildcats were hardly impenetrable with Noel in the lineup, either.

The lesson in all this exists on neither extreme of the rhetorical continuum. Calipari didn't lose his touch or totally whiff on recruits last season any more than his 2011-12 team changed college basketball forever.

The lesson here is something more fundamental about the game itself, and it's true whether you're playing in your pickup game or in the NBA: Talent isn't everything. Championships don't just happen. Personalities matter. Intelligence matters. Defense matters. Veterans matter.

That's why, even as Calipari prepares to bring the best recruiting class in college hoops history into the fold, Kentucky can't merely hope to glide by on glimmering talent. If UK is going to upend the reigning national champs at Louisville and avoid challenges from every corner, the Wildcats will need the scattered returners to step up, too.

None will be more important than Willie Cauley-Stein.

With Goodwin and Noel off to the NBA and Ryan Harrow having transferred to Georgia State, Cauley-Stein, Poythress and Wiltjer were the only three candidates for this prestigious position. I was actually torn about this Tuesday night, so I ran an informal poll among Kentucky fans on Twitter. Dozens of replies later, the consensus was overwhelmingly in favor of Cauley-Stein. Some made the case for Poythress, particularly in light of Andrew Wiggins' decision to play at Kansas (thus preserving Poythress plenty of minutes and possibly a starting spot). Few made the case for Wiltjer, even though I would contend his length and shooting -- he finished at 36.7 percent from 3 last season, which isn't bad for a 6-foot-10 guy -- could still be crucial in 2013-14.

But Cauley-Stein's case really is the most convincing. You won't find many 7-footers as athletic as Cauley-Stein at any level, full stop, and the big man already demonstrated solid rebounding on both ends of the floor and competent finishing ability around the rim. He ended the season having shot 62.1 percent from the field, which is great pretty much any way you slice it. Despite that output, though, Cauley-Stein couldn't be relied on to score over a competent defender. According to Synergy scouting data, Cauley-Stein scored 1.55 points per possession when he cut to the rim and 1.05 on offensive rebound putbacks but just .067 points per trip the 75 times he was put in a legitimate post-up opportunity.

This is rawness personified. A little more touch and one or two reliable moves, and there's no reason an athletic 7-footer can't score over even the best collegiate post defenders.

But that would be a bonus. After all, Kentucky shouldn't have much trouble scoring the basketball next season. The Harrison twins (Andrew and Aaron) will be deadly on the perimeter, and power forward Julius Randle -- the No. 3-ranked player in the class, behind only Wiggins and Duke's Jabari Parker -- will be the go-to post force. Also, Kentucky has the No. 2 center in the class, Dakari Johnson, whose chief strength is his offensive polish.

No, what Kentucky needs -- what has made Calipari such a consistently successful coach in the past decade -- is defense. Last season's Wildcats finished ranked No. 77 in KenPom.com's adjusted efficiency rankings. That was the first time since the 2004-05 Memphis Tigers that a Calipari-coached defense wasn't among the 15 stingiest in the country. In five of those years, it ranked in the top 10. This is Calipari's formula: His offenses are usually excellent, but sometimes they're merely good. What sets his teams apart is his ability to meld young players into a lockdown defensive group.

Cauley-Stein will be massive in this effort. He blocked a shot on 8.4 percent of his available possessions last season, which is a totally respectable rate on its own and especially impressive given that he was playing on the same team as human block-sponge Noel. Johnson is not known as an elite athlete or defender, beyond his ability to clog the lane. Cauley-Stein, on the other hand, has a chance to be a dominant defensive presence. He could be the prohibitive force that makes interior penetration against Kentucky impossible, the player who lets the rest of the team's talent press out on shooters, unafraid of either (A) inefficient midrange shots or (B) deep drives. Cauley-Stein can be on that wall. He should be on that wall.

The great luxury of Calipari's signing five of the best nine players in recent history's most loaded incoming class is that none of his three returners will be seen as the team's most important player. That title likely will go to either Aaron or Andrew Harrison, or Randle. Neither Poythress nor Cauley-Stein is guaranteed a starting spot; Wiltjer, veteran of a national title team, is practically guaranteed to come off the bench. And we haven't even talked about James Young (a 6-foot-6 lefty scorer ranked eighth overall in the class) or Marcus Lee (the best oh-yeah-they-have-that-guy in recruiting history).

Conceivably, UK could start five freshmen -- the Harrisons, Young, Randle and Johnson -- and still be a legitimate national title threat, if not the favorite. But it is hard to imagine Kentucky approaching its incredibly lofty ceiling if Cauley-Stein isn't contributing in big ways to that effort. The Wildcats need his size, his shot-blocking, his rebounding. They need the size and strength borne of a full offseason spent in an elite training and conditioning program.

They also need his anger. Few players were more vocal about the frustration of last season, how embarrassing getting walked off in Moon, Pa., really was.

"I feel like something’s empty, and I want to fill it," Cauley-Stein told the Courier-Journal's Kyle Tucker in April. Kentucky needs Cauley-Stein to be that guy -- the guy who has been through it before, who knows it isn't easy, that no matter how bad it gets in practice, he has seen worse. On every rotation and every box-out, Kentucky needs someone who feels an emptiness that can be filled only by winning.

In short, Kentucky needs a veteran. Poythress or Wiltjer might be that guy. Maybe all three are. Maybe there's an MKG in the freshman mix. Someone must embrace the role, tangible or otherwise. Kentucky will be very good the minute it begins the season. Whether it will be great is another matter entirely, one up to Cauley-Stein and, to a lesser extent, Poythress and Wiltjer.

Because that is the real lesson of the past two seasons of Kentucky basketball. Talent is great, but greatness is about so much more than talent. Sometimes we need a reminder, you know?