As we have all watched our beloved Wildcats this past week, we have come to realize we actually have two good teams in one. Coach Cal and staff have decided to go with a platoon substitution pattern among 10 players. There are several schools of thought behind this method.
- Using your depth: by bringing in waves of five at a time you always have fresh players and can press more and physically wear down your opponent. The strategy is sound, but this trip was not designed to win games.
- The Grinnell gimmick: This is obviously not what Cal is doing, but I thought it would be fun to mention it. Grinnell College subs five people every 45 seconds of game play and essentially they run a 1-2-2 full court trap and they either get a turnover or give up a 3 on 2 layup then try and shoot a three within 5-7 seconds... crazy.
- Equal Clock: Calipari wants equal playing time for his top 10 (sans Lyles and Cauley-Stein) for equal evaluation. While there could be some truth to this, it is not the driving force. It is merely a by-product of the method.
- Conservation: Coach Cal wants to keep everyone's minutes down so as not to wear them down so early in the season. No, these are 18-20 year old kids and he scheduled six games in eight days against three different teams. There is no conserving energy here.
If you have ever played in a pickup basketball game with guys you are meeting for the first time or two, you know there is always that "breaking in" period. You are not quite sure what role you will play in the game. Are you the best player and you need to carry your team? Is there a guy on the team that you need to partner with to lead and the other three are all role players? Do you need to be the facilitator because everyone is as good or better than you are?
Now, don't get me wrong, there are guys who come into a game knowing their role and not caring about anyone else's. They are going to try to be the scoring leader of whatever group of guys is on the floor and everyone else will have to adjust to them. For the most part, however, there is an adjustment period for all good players and especially those players leaving from a team they led to a team full of "best players."
In a normal year for Coach Cal, he could simply bring in the newest top class, tell them their roles, and coach them to it as such. Their progress depends on their development, learning curve, and work ethic. This is obviously not a normal year. This team is returning 59% of its scoring from last season and three of five starters with Alex Poythress being a fourth starter.
I think Coach Cal is going with the platoon because it empowers each player to play as they would if they were a starter or a team leader. Karl Towns is one of our best players and may end up being the #1 pick in the 2015 NBA Draft, yet he is on the second team. This is because Towns does not have to wonder if he should defer to the Twins or to Poythress or Dakari Johnson. He becomes instantly comfortable in a Kentucky uniform as a go-to guy. When the season starts and he is on the floor with the twins, Poythress and Willie Cauley-Stein or Johnson, he will play as he has this week.
Derek Willis is another example of why I believe this. Derek has played aggressively and well this week. Would he have put himself out there with some of his plays if he were deferring to everyone else? I don't think so, I think the platoon system empowered Derek to try to make plays and be a leader instead of potentially messing something up with the starters.
Dominique Hawkins is another example; last season nobody deferred more than he did. He would pass up wide-open shots to pass it off. While unselfish, it does not help the team as much as a driving, cutting Hawkins and that is what we have seen due to the platoon system.
Calipari is playing his usual mind games and says he is "trying it out," and he may do it this season because they are so deep. This is a man who refuses to play zone to his own detriment. Do you really think he is going to up and give up decision making in substitutions? No, he is not going to have any kind of platoon system this regular season. He will likely find a nice rotation of 8-9 players and whoever steps up will benefit.
In a year when we are going to be stacked and deep, he needs to find those 8-9 players as soon as possible. This method and competition will give him a significant head start in that process. Kudos to Coach Cal for thinking outside the box and having a strategy to maximize this team's ability at such an early stage of the year.