LEXINGTON, Ky. -- Kentucky's freshmen fell short of expectations in a disappointing season, and those returning are looking forward to using their experience to help the next crop of highly touted Wildcats avoid suffering the same fate.
Despite promising rookie moments, neither came close to leading Kentucky to another NCAA title. So after some soul-searching that included meetings with coach John Calipari, Cauley-Stein and Poythress delayed their pro plans and returned to school, providing experience and depth for a Wildcats team that lacked both during a 21-12 season that ended with a first-round NIT loss at Robert Morris.
Both want to provide leadership to an incoming class considered the best in Kentucky history.
"Last year just left a bad taste in your mouth and I feel like something's empty," Cauley-Stein said. "I want to fill it. Next year, we're going to have a great opportunity to do that."
Poythress, Cauley-Stein, Nerlens Noel and Archie Goodwin arrived last fall as coach John Calipari's latest No. 1 recruiting class, one that was expected to follow up Kentucky's national championship led by All-American freshmen Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist. All were also expected to depart for the NBA after their rookie seasons.
This group of young Wildcats quickly discovered that how difficult it is to duplicate that magic without six players now in the NBA.
The learning curve seemed steep for all but Noel, who established himself as the nation's top shot-blocker with 4.4 per game despite suffering a season-ending torn left ACL on Feb. 12. But Kentucky struggled even with the 6-foot-10 forward and went 4-5 without him, missing the NCAA tournament and losing 59-57 to Robert Morris as the NIT's top overall seed.
Noel announced last week that he will enter the NBA draft and could be the No. 1 overall pick while rehabilitating his knee. Goodwin earlier threw his name into the draft pool. Surprisingly, 7-footer Cauley-Stein and Poythress chose to return for their sophomore seasons.
"I just wanted to get better, work on my skill set and improve as player," said Poythress, who averaged 11.2 points and 6.0 rebounds last season. "When your season ends so early and you're just watching games, it's kind of sickening because you're not playing anymore. I didn't want to leave on a bad note with a bad taste in my mouth. It was a tough loss for us, and you don't want to end your career like that."
Poythress also acknowledged that there was plenty of room for improvement in his game and particularly his enthusiasm, which made him a target of criticism by Calipari and Big Blue Nation.
But the coach also gushed about the 6-7 forward's potential with more seasoning, and Poythress said there's lots of video to learn from.
"A loss like that hurts, you know?" Poythress added, "and you can use it for motivation. Anytime you get the court rushed (by fans), it's just a bad feeling walking off with a loss. You got to work from that and fix it."
Cauley-Stein said the plan of being "one and done" was never set in stone despite projections of being a possible first-round NBA pick. Playing mostly behind Noel until the injury, he finished with averages of 8.3 points. 6.2 rebounds and 2.1 blocks and made the Southeastern Conference's rookie squad along with his fellow Kentucky freshmen.
But he knew his game needed improvement even before Calipari expressed his wish for him to also be a more vocal leader. Those facts plus the Kansas native's love of the college experience was more attractive than adult responsibilities such as paying income taxes on a pro contract.
"They'd survived this far without whatever I was going to make in the pros, so what's another year or two?," Cauley-Stein said of his family's input.
"I'm not trying to pay for taxes, for one. I'm still a kid. ... Here, you're that one guy that it's kind of like, everybody knows you. You go to the pros (it's like), 'Oh, you can tell he's a pro but who is he?' I like it around here where people know my name. That's just fun."
As both seek to hone their games, they'll also be trying to ease the transition for what could be the Wildcats' best recruiting class ever.
Last week's signings of 6-9 Julius Randle and 6-10 Dakari Johnson add two more McDonald's All-Americans to a stocked Kentucky roster including guards Andrew Harrison and Aaron Harrison, forward Marcus Lee and guard/forward James Young. Add in Poythress and Kyle Wiltjer, who will return for his junior year, and the Wildcats have eight McDonald's selections on board.
That means another year of sky-high championship expectations for Kentucky. But the presence of Cauley-Stein, Poythress and Wiltjer offers the potential for guidance similar to what senior Darius Miller and sophomores Doron Lamb and Terrence Jones provided for the Wildcats' last title squad -- and hopefully, the same results.
"I'm excited for them to get here," Poythress said. "It's going to be hard work, but once we get here and get things clicking, I'm real excited for what we can do. It's time for me to step up, Willie and Kyle, we just got to step up and do what our team needs us to do."