Sceptics may view it as something that sounds good in theory, but may not stand the test of time with a coach who generally prefers to keep his rotation closer to seven players.
No matter which group is right, one thing is for certain: Calipari and the preseason No. 1 Wildcats have the college basketball world buzzing once again.
Unforeseen circumstances led to the UK boss’s decision to experiment with “platoons” – five players in, five players out at designated times – during the Wildcats’ Bahamas exhibition tour this summer. Junior center Willie Cauley-Stein, junior forward Alex Poythress and twin sophomore guards Andrew and Aaron Harrison – each projected as early entrants into the 2014 NBA Draft – all decided to return to Lexington for another season.
Suddenly, necessity became the mother of invention for Calipari. How could he find a way to blend all of that returning talent with another elite recruiting class while ensuring team chemistry remained strong?
“As soon as the twins said we're coming back, I went, ‘Oh, my gosh. What am I going to do?’” Calipari said. “Then I had to call the freshmen parents and those kids to tell them ‘I've got your back. You just keep training. This is going to work.’”
It did. Perhaps even better than the UK boss could have even envisioned when the Cats went 5-1 against foreign professional squads in the Bahamas. An experiment turned into a mission. Calipari now views it as an opportunity for a “watershed moment” in the sport.
“I'm not doing this to be a genius. That's not why I'm doing it,” Calipari said during UK’s recent media day. “I have never done this before. If I was worried about me, we'd play seven guys. Do you know how good those seven would be?
“Well, (what if) your son is one of the three not playing? You should play 10, two-platoon… What I'm doing is what's right for these kids. Will it change? Will it morph into something else? Probably will. But right now all I know (is) I'm trying to make sure that I'm taking care of every one of these kids. That they're eating first. This is the best solution that I could come up with, and I racked my brain, how do I do this and make sure none of those kids are left behind?”
UK’s Willie Cauley-Stein elevated for a dunk over Marcus Lee during the Big Blue Madness scrimmage. (Scout Photo by Jeff Drummond.)
An embarrassment of riches forced Calipari’s hand. The Cats looked strong in the Bahamas without an injured Cauley-Stein, a 7-footer and one of the best defenders in the country, and signee Trey Lyles, a national Top 10 recruit who was recovering from an illness.
With both healthy and adding to the talent pool now, Calipari jokes that he should be receiving paychecks for coaching two teams. Some national basketball observers say that’s not too far from the truth. Kentucky’s second platoon, no matter who winds up being part of it, could potentially be viewed as a Top 25 team and a contender in many conferences.
Perhaps thanks to the successful exhibition trip, the Cats seem to have fully bought into the platoon concept.
“We’re all going to buy in because we see that coach actually cares about us, wants the best for us, and wants to win,” said Aaron Harrison. “Not many people care about you as much as coach does, so once you see someone that cares about you so much, you want buy into what he does.”
“We really liked it (in the Bahamas),” said freshman center/forward Karl-Anthony Towns, Scout’s No. 4 prospect in the Class of 2014 and a player who would have likely received 30-35 minutes per game had Cauley-Stein or Poythress moved on to the pro level. “At the end of the day, we’re all here to just try to do everything we can to try to win as many games as possible.”
“I think everyone on the team thinks it can work,” Poythress added.
Initially, sophomore center Dakari Johnson wasn’t so sure.
“But in the Bahamas, it worked perfectly fine,” he said. “When you’re out there, you can go all-out in the minutes that you get. Knowing that you have a backup so you can go all-out is a good feeling.”
There are some caveats. Calipari said if a player or two clearly separate themselves from the pack and demonstrate that they need to be on the floor for longer than 20 minutes a game, he'll have to adjust his plan. He also notes that time-and-score situations will lead to some mixing and matching, especially end-game scenarios where he needs his best five free throw shooters on the floor.
Calipari knows there will be more naysayers along the way.
“I'm just on a mission to make it work because I'm hearing all the reasons you can't do it,” he said. “You can't do this, that, and the issue for our guys is can they keep the clutter away?”
He credited a former Duke standout, ESPN analyst Jay Bilas, for helping him prepare the team for what they might hear from the outside this season.
“Jay Bilas gave a great talk to our guys about understand that it's coming,” Calipari said. “He said we in the media, that's what we do. So what we're going to do is pit you against him. Who is better? He should be playing, he's not. Well, why would these three say you're better and these three say he's better? What about this big guy versus that big guy? What about if he was only doing this? Oh, he needs to play 30 minutes to show his game. It's coming.”