The biggest issue facing the 2014-2015 version of the Kentucky Wildcats is, simply, playing time.
This team goes ten deep, and that’s before you factor in Dominique Hawkins and Derek Willis, two local guys that could probably start for some 300 Division I teams. John Calipari’s solution to that problem during Kentucky’s six-game swing through the Bahamas was simple: platoons.
Cal broke his team up into two units during the exhibitions last week, with the starters and the players off the bench all playing right around 20 minutes per game. At every TV timeout, more or less, Cal would call for a line change, subbing all five players on the court.
With how deep his roster is — the tenth man on this team is Marcus Lee, who was a top 30 recruit in 2013 and could end up being a first round draft pick after this season even if he plays limited minutes — Cal is able to do that without taking that much of a hit with the talent that he has on the floor. In other words, Kentucky’s second five is probably better than the starting lineups of most teams outside the top 20.
It’s an easy way for him to guarantee minutes to his players, and it may actually be beneficial to get each group comfortable with playing along side the other four players they’ll spend the year playing with. And, theoretically, he could create nightmares for opposing coaches and teams if he has those two platoons playing different styles. Imagine trying to prepare for Kentucky if the first five play zone and the second five run a non-stop, full-court press.
And, based on what Cal is saying right now, it sounds like the platoon system is something he’s giving serious thought to. From the Louisville Courier-Journal’s interview with Coach Cal:
I think so. There may be games it’s difficult to win (doing that). The only ones that are the most important to win are those last six. So, yeah. And I think what happened here was, the greatest thing is everyone had a chance to show they should be playing more or less, they should be playing or not playing. You can’t say, ‘Well, I’ve never had an opportunity.’
I also think that when you two-platoon and you have guys playing 20 minutes, which is plenty of time; the reality of it is three or four more minutes a half (in a normal rotation). Just play harder. You get more done, you’re more efficient. So playing 20 minutes a game, everybody had their time. And I think every guy shined. I don’t think there’s one guy – no one hurt themselves. Some guys helped themselves more than others. That’s just how life is. But no one you look at and say, ‘Man, they’re just not ready. They can’t do this.’ No. Just other guys were better and helped themselves more.
Will it work? Who knows. Foul trouble could wreak havoc with that system, and in the final minutes, I’m sure Coach Cal is going to want to make situational changes based on matchups, who is playing well and who his best players are. In other words, I’ll believe that Cal will keep his second five on the floor in crunch time of a close game when I see him do it.
But I can see him using this platoon system for the first 16 minutes of each half. Frankly, it might be the best way to keep everyone happy. If everyone’s happy, than every one is playing hard.
And with the amount of talent that is on this roster, convincing this group to play hard all the time may be the most important part of Cal’s job this year.