One of the most interesting subplots heading into the start of college basketball season is how John Calipari will manage minutes for an incredibly deep Kentucky team. The Wildcats have nine McDonalds All-Americans on the roster -- to put that perspective, the Big 12 has seven in the entire conference, and the Big Ten only has six.
Kentucky's backcourt will mostly be manned by Andrew and Aaron Harrison in their sophomore seasons, with 5'9 freshman point guard Tyler Ulis expected to see minutes as well. The front court is where things start to get interesting.
Between juniors Willie Cauley-Stein and Alex Poythress, sophomores Dakari Johnson and Marcus Lee, and freshmen Karl-Anthony Towns and Trey Lyles, Kentucky has enough talent at center and power forward to stock starters for three top 15 teams. Even sophomore Derek Willis, likely to be the seventh man in the bigs rotation, was considered a top 125 recruit and would likely start for a number of teams around the country.
When Cauley-Stein decided to forgo being a first round pick in the NBA draft and Poythress and Johnson also returned to school, Calipari knew playing time was going to be an issue. His solution? A straight platoon system, with two distinct five-man alternating minutes.
Substitution patterns resembling hockey shifts seems like an unconventional idea, but it might be the only way Calipari can get so much talent regular minutes. According to Caliapari, the players are all on-board with the idea for now.
"The players bought into it," he said. "They liked it. They all thought it was terrific. The biggest thing will be the clutter that will circle, which, the clutter of the ego and all the other things, but we have a couple things we’re going to do that will make it clear, you know, how they’re playing. One thing I would say is, does Michael Jordan really have to be out there 32 minutes to show you he can play? Or LeBron or Anthony? The question is, the clutter of the ego, you know, you have to sit back and say there’s two things: I want to win a championship and I want to be drafted in the highest position I can be. Can that all happen in the a platoon? Yes, it can, but it’ll be a challenge. No one’s ever done it. I’ll say it again: People have done it but not where the players benefited."
Calipari also said there will be situational platoons as well depending on how a specific game unravels. If the Wildcats need more shooting or more defense or more quickness, alterations to the lineup are bound to take place. It'll also be interesting to see how long Calipari sticks to his guns when his team is losing. With so much talent, though, it wouldn't be a surprise to see Kentucky blow a lot of teams out.
Of course, Kentucky was supposed to blow a lot of teams out last year as well before stumbling several times during the regular season and grabbing only a No. 8 seed in the NCAA Tournament. Those Wildcats figured it out eventually with an inspired run to the national title game, but things certainly didn't come together as quickly as most expected.
This Kentucky team is bigger, deeper and more experienced than last year's squad. Even with Julius Randle and James Young on to the NBA as first round picks, there still might be more an even more alarming amount of talent on this year's squad. It's why Kentucky has rarely been ranked lower than No. 2 in most early-season polls, and has a good chance of starting out the year No. 1 once the official polls come out.
Still, you know there will be times when shots aren't falling, foul trouble piles up and Kentucky finds itself down double-digits. When it happens, will Cal still sub in groups of five? For now, it doesn't matter. As is his M.O., Cal is happy if the players are happy, and at the moment it appears everyone is buying in.