Kentucky head coach John Calipari has (unofficially) been to five Final Fours and won a national title, so I understand that he clearly knows a few things about basketball.
But this season Calipari is pulling out a gimmick straight from your local D3 school: a platoon system in which all five players sub out simultaneously, essentially creating two different “teams” of Wildcats.
It won’t work.
Before I go into the reasons why, I’ll admit that Kentucky is the only team in the country that could even think about doing a platoon system. This is what happens when a program continuously wins the recruiting battle every single year.
Since coming to Kentucky, Calipari has pulled in either the nation’s No. 1 or No. 2 recruiting class in all six seasons. On this year’s roster, he has 10 players who were ranked in the ESPN Top 100 as incoming freshmen. Eight of those guys were five-star recruits.
So in an effort to distribute minutes to so many talented players and keep everyone well rested, Calipari came up with the platoon. Through three games, those 10 ESPN 100 players have all averaged at least 15 minutes per game and none have averaged more than 25. Only two players are scoring in double figures.
Kentucky is very good and there’s a reason the Wildcats are ranked No. 1, but the platoon system is perhaps the biggest threat to UK’s title hopes. While there’s an upside to doing something unconventional like this, the cons outweigh the pros.
Though the platoon has not been completely exclusive, there has been very little overlap between players that start and those that come off the bench. This creates a situation where each player becomes overwhelmingly comfortable with his own unit.
Let’s hypothetically say that a starter with middling impact (we’ll go with big man Willie Cauley-Stein) goes down with injury right at the end of the regular season, forcing sophomore Dakari Johnson to enter the starting lineup. Never mind that Johnson is probably far more talented than that bumbling oaf Cauley-Stein. Is it realistic to expect him to now fit seamlessly into a unit he has very little experience playing with?
Losing a player to serious injury right before the tournament would be a devastating blow for any team, but its impact might be most keen with Kentucky. Even though this team is loaded with depth, you can’t just stick any player into a lineup and expect it to work. More than any other sport, basketball requires everyone on the floor to understand what his teammates are doing. That chemistry and flow takes time to develop.
An injury before the tournament is a doomsday scenario. What about the far more likely, almost guaranteed concept of losing players here and there due to minor injuries throughout the season? This would help integrate the two units, but would Calipari insist on going back to the rigid platoon structure once everyone gets healthy? This would throw off whatever integration progress the team had made.
And certainly there will be times when a player is absolutely lighting it up on the floor and dominating, yet the platoon system calls for a mass substitution. When Aaron “Damn You” Harrison is draining everything from the perimeter, do you really take him out of the game?
Calipari has said that players who are hot will get more minutes. Fine, but again we come back to the issue of a guy now having to play with people he isn’t used to being with on the court.
On the flip side, there’s no reason to keep plugging away with guys that are struggling, just to keep them in the platoon. Reserve shooting guard Devin Booker has shot 25 percent from the floor so far. Granted, he’s a freshman and will get better, but you cannot continue to give him his average of 17 minutes per game if he keeps playing like that.
Look, this team is very good. Against No. 5 Kansas Tuesday night, the Wildcats were in control from the opening tipoff as the Jayhawks bumbled and bricked their way to a 72-40 defeat. Kentucky’s height down low deterred Kansas from getting the ball inside, forcing a team that doesn’t shoot very well to take contested jump shots. It wasn’t pretty.
A national championship is a very realistic goal for Kentucky this season and they don’t have to resort to a gimmick to achieve it. While a title obviously isn’t guaranteed even with such a strong collection of players, there’s no reason for the Wildcats to set themselves up for failure with an unconventional system when a standard rotation will do just fine.