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Kentucky Basketball: The Success Of Calipari's Platoons And Why It Matters

We've talked a lot about the "platoon system," but there is still more to be said.

Mark Zerof-USA TODAY Sports

There was a piece in the Washington Post the other day thoughtfully sent to my by a reader of A Sea of Blue that talks about Kentucky thriving in the platoon system. It has been linked on here a time or two by others, but I thought it deserved some exposition and continued discussion as we move into our second game without junior forward Alex Poythress.

Calipari was reluctant to play in what has been deemed the "platoon system." As is his wont, he downplayed it quite a bit in the early season while explaining it almost in a way that could be described as a "necessary evil." As with most things John Calipari says, this was intended to be heard by different people in different ways.

Fans were meant to hear his pronouncement as a warning that he was unsure if it would be successful, and the implication that it wouldn't necessarily be continued if not. Current players were meant to hear it as the fulfillment of his promise to them as a "players first" coach. Recruits were meant to hear that it demonstrates they need not avoid Kentucky if the pantry is stocked. Parents were meant to hear the commitment of Coach Cal to the success of their progeny. The media were meant to hear it as an opportunity to endlessly analyze the system and its success (or failure), and what we see with the Washington Post (and this very article, among many others) is that objective realized.

The genesis of the platoons was the need to play highly recruited and talented young men rather than asking them to sit on the bench for a year as little-played reserves. Calipari has been nothing if not inconsistent when it comes to substituting people, particularly in very competitive games. His tendency is to get five or six guys that he’s comfortable with, then give it the old "I should’ve played X more" in the post-game presser.

Platoons give him a way to avoid having to worry about that. Consider this from the article under discussion:

Calipari cut short the scouting session and focused on his own team. The projector screen rolled up and revealed a number on the chalk board: 60. The Wildcats had been shooting 60 shots per game.

"We need to get 70," Calipari told players. "Why?"

"Because everybody eats," one player replied from the front row.

"Everybody eats," Calipari said.

"Everybody eats." Why does everybody have to eat? Other teams don’t let freshmen eat a lot. It’s normal. It’s a rite of passage in college basketball, even for five-star players.

But this is Kentucky. This is Calipari. If everybody doesn’t eat, Coach Cal sees it as an abrogation of his commitment to the families of these talented guys. He sees it as a personal failure, because he’s standing in the way of a young man reaching his dream:

"It’s that 10 guys are willing to share minutes," Calipari said. "It’s not 10 schmoes. I’ve had coaches call me. ‘I did it. Here’s how I did it.’ But you didn’t do it with 10 NBA players. You did it with guys who are going to be in school for four years and then go get jobs. They’re happy. This is different. It’s also different – how about their parents? Would you want your son to play 20 minutes if he had NBA potential?"

Calipari recruits at the highest level in the nation for a reason — he means it when he says this is a players first program, and players first means accepting and meeting the challenge of a stocked roster from that perspective, not from a program perspective. When Calipari says "players first," he means it, and the platoons are what that means in the situation Kentucky finds itself in.

Calipari explained to his players that the platoon will work to their advantage. It reduces pressure by spreading the burden – a bad individual game will be overlooked more easily when there are nine other players to discuss. They can play harder than ever before, meaning scouts will only see them at their best. In the NBA, Calipari reasons, they’ll have to seek out baskets rather than having plays called for them. (my emphasis)

I think this is a great point, and one that is often overlooked. Bad games happen to great players, and if Kentucky were playing a traditional system, a bad game by, say, Willie Cauley-Stein or Karl-Anthony Towns would have a much greater impact than otherwise, particularly on the national sports commentariat that Calipari relies on to get his players noticed. You may think that Coach Cal has a combative relationship with the press, but in truth, the two worthies form a symbiotic relationship — he feeds them controversy to sell articles, and they help promote his players and program by writing about it.

The platoon system is part and parcel of this symbiosis. It has been the subject of countless articles, and it is a perfect example of how Calipari uses his position, and the power of the press, to both sell the program to future recruits and to keep his word to his charges. When the nation talks about Kentucky, they talk about the Harrisons, and Poythress, and Tyler Ulis, and Trey Lyles et. al. That’s exactly what Coach Cal wants.

Before he scrimmaged, Calipari created a drill to encourage faster offense, to find those 10 extra shots. Four offensive players would run at two defensive players, and two more defensive players would trail the fast break.

"If you can’t score four-on-two, you suck," Calipari said. "If it gets to four-on-four, you suck."

The first three possessions produced a bricked jumper, a missed lay-up and a side-rim three-pointer. Calipari blasted his whistle.

"What does this prove right now?" Calipari shouted.

"We suck," a few players muttered.

How do you get to be the best coach in college basketball, or at least one of the top five? You motivate people. Even with a group this talented, there plenty of room for improvement, and improvement starts every day, every morning when you put on your shoes and head to that practice. "If you can’t score four-on-two, you suck." We consider that a truism, but the difference between the verbalization of that concept and the execution of it is, as the players see, significant.

The platoon system has been an unalloyed success at Kentucky. Calipari’s understandable poor-mouthing of it early in the season was necessary to give him a reason to end it if it went completely south, but as we have seen, it has done anything but that. In fact, it has proven to be even more successful than most of us imagined, for predictable but somewhat elusive reasons that don’t always materialize as we expect. In this case, the expectations have been more than met.

There is much more in this article, and if you haven’t read it, you should try to find the time. It’s much more than the cookie-cutter pieces you see lying around ESPN and on blogs all the time — not to disparage those; I am those — but it’s more in-depth than usual and much worth your time.