A Nice Problem to Have

John Calipari has a problem: his team is troublingly talented.

Top-ranked Kentucky opened its season along with most of the major college basketball world Friday night, routing Grand Canyon, 85–45. The squad, roundly nominated as potentially one of the sport's best teams ever, displayed a dazzling mix of returning players and its annual shipment of elite freshman.

Clearly, this looks like the deepest team Calipari has ever fielded.

For all of the Marcus Cambys, Derek Roses, John Walls, and Anthony Davises Calipari has shepherded through college hoops, there has always been a noticeable drop-off on his rosters. Each year's new wave of top prospects essentially replaces the previous year's handful of NBA-bound stars, but that annual rotation only accounts for a third of the team. Many of Calipari's rosters look like a teenager's closet, with a handful of beloved pieces being frequently worn and eventually replaced with new trendy pieces while several misfitting or inherited pieces hang quietly around the periphery.

But something is different this year. As Calipari has established Lexington as the recruiting capital of the college basketball world to a degree never seen before, he has accumulated a small inventory of rotation-quality players who stayed for more than a year for various reasons. Where previous rosters relied solely on star freshmen to drive them and accepted any contribution from the upperclassmen as frosting, this team returned key contributors like Andrew and Aaron Harrison, Alex Poythress, and Willie Cauley-Stein. With the traditional top-rated recruiting class filling around them, Calipari has an unprecedented glut of talent.

And therein lies the problem.

Part of the Calipari/Kentucky value proposition is the implied availability of opportunity. Sure, all schools can find playing time for a blue chipper or two, but at Kentucky, the rate of change means there are minutes for half-a-dozen new players annually. To players two or three years from graduating into college basketball, this is a huge marketing advantage. While Duke, Kansas, or Michigan State might have a wall of juniors and seniors to overcome in any given year, Kentucky expects heavy minutes out of its freshmen.

But maybe John Calipari has a solution: Instead of coaching one elite team, he's fielding two.

In the win Friday, Kentucky used a platoon system for much of the game. In the same way that hockey teams change lines, Calipari alternated between two teams of five. On his first squad, Calipari combined the Harrisons, Alex Poythress, Willie Cauley-Stein, and freshman Karl-Anthony Towns. This is an elite starting lineup, and traditionally, a few supporting role players would find niches to round out a punishing seven- or eight-man rotation.

Instead, Calipari has grouped his bench into a second squad of freshmen Tyler Ulis, Devin Booker, and Trey Lyles, and sophomores Marcus Lee and Dakari Johnson. Each of those five could easily start for, and probably lead, the majority of the top 25.

But beyond keeping UK attractive to future recruits, Calipari's platoon's will serve this season's goals. The Cats will likely only be legitimately challenged a handful of times this year, and overconfidence and lethargy have to be major concerns.

So given an expected lack of external competition, Calipari has found a way to manufacture it internally. Rather than let a truly talented young player languish and sour as the ninth or tenth man on this squad, Kentucky will pit its own players against each other to stay sharp. Some of this team's toughest days will almost certainly be in practice against each other.

In reality, nobody expects Calipari to rigidly stick to the platoons. Even in Friday's cruise over Grand Canyon, Calipari began mixing the platoons, foreshadowing a point later in the season when he will likely trim his rotation during the late stages of the Wildcats' toughest games.

Other coaches have used five-man substitutions in the past. Dean Smith most notably did it at North Carolina in the 1970s, inserting his "Blue Team" of high-effort players into games when the Tar Heels needed a hustle play or two to boost the regulars' energy. Other coaches who rely more on tested systems over individual talent may use mass substitutions to create matchup confusion or keep their starters fresh. But nobody has tried this with so much talent.

The courage to try new things is the mark of greatness. Rather than worship one's own genius, the true innovators strive for more.

Historically, this UK squad will be judged on whether it wins the tournament and how dominant it is over the course of the season. This team may go down as one of college basketball's greatest, or it may just be a really good team that faced unreasonable expectations.

Change is especially frightening from the top of the mountain. With so much recent success and this week's announcements of even more top-shelf signings, Calipari could easily have stuck to a traditional rotation. It takes significant courage to try something new in the name of being even better.

Oh, and ironclad job security and a continuous stream of lottery picks help, too.

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