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Study Shows That Too Much Talent Is A Problem. How Does John Calipari Solve It For Kentucky?

It turns out that too much top talent on a team carries a cost in success. Will that affect the Kentucky basketball team?

Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

An interesting article appeared in Scientific American a couple of days ago, and it discusses the problem of too much talent, something that Kentucky is surely blessed (or cursed) with this season. The article is based on some research by Roderick Swaab and his colleagues, and looks at three sports: professional basketball, soccer, and baseball. Essentially, they calculated the percentage of top talent on each team, then charted their success over a period of years. The article contains a bit more detail about how the talent calculation went.

Without boring you with too many details, dear reader, let’s just cut to the chase:

For both basketball and soccer, they found that top talent did in fact predict team success, but only up to a point. Furthermore, there was not simply a point of diminishing returns with respect to top talent, there was in fact a cost. Basketball and soccer teams with the greatest proportion of elite athletes performed worse than those with more moderate proportions of top level players. [My emphasis]

Obviously, this conclusion is relevant to Kentucky, who is widely considered to have the most top talent of any college basketball team in America. Indeed, this would seem to reinforce articles and commentary we have heard, and will continue to see as the basketball season approaches, that Kentucky simply has too much talent to be effective. Usually, this works out as an admonition that Calipari will not be able to keep his guys happy with enough minutes; they will become disaffected and poison the team. This isn’t explicitly spelled out by the Scientific American article, but it is implied:

Two related findings by Swaab and colleagues indicate that there is in fact tradeoff between top talent and teamwork. First, Swaab and colleagues found that the percentage of top talent on a team affects intrateam coordination. For the basketball study, teams with the highest levels of top performers had fewer assists and defensive rebounds, and lower field-goal percentages. These failures in strategic, collaborative play undermined the team’s effectiveness. [My emphasis]

So the question becomes, "How can Calipari avoid this trap?" Coach Cal intends to avoid this in a manner so devilishly simple I’m not even sure he’s aware of it — by diluting the talent on the team. How does he do that? Simple — by breaking the team up into two less talented squads rather than one über-talented group.

Calipari has a sufficient pool of substitute players to field two complete basketball teams, and that’s apparently his intention. Everybody on the team will play less minutes that way, but most of them will play the most they possibly can under such an arrangement — more or less equal minutes for ten of Calipari’s players, and backup minutes for the others.

I doubt that Coach Cal is aware of a study showing how too much talent can be a detriment, but his intuition tells him that even though it’s a good problem to have, it’s still a problem. Calipari appears to have a viable solution with his platoon system, but it isn’t a perfect one. The problem is, of course, that platooning the team like this may not work as well in practice as it does in theory. There will also be close games where Calipari will become uncomfortable, particularly late, doing hockey-style substitutions. Those figure to be the exception for most of the season, but will likely become more frequent later on as teams learn to adapt to Kentucky’s approach.  How will that affect team chemistry?  We don't know, and neither does he.

To be honest, Calipari has little choice but to do this. He feels that he owes it to these young men to provide as many of them as possible with the opportunity to reach their dream of playing in the NBA. To do that, platooning would seem to be a necessity, even if it turns out to be a challenging one for the prospects of the team. I think Kentucky’s just going to have to learn to play this way, come whatever end — not just for the sake of the players’ ambitions, but also to avoid the problem identified by Swaab and his group of researchers.  Growing pains will surely show up, and the Wildcats will just have to play through them.

That just makes this season look all the more fun, wouldn’t you say?