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Kentucky Basketball: Calipari's "Player's First" Philosophy Collides With John Wooden's Advice

John Wooden advised Coach Cal to play fewer players. Now, Calipari must disregard the advice that has served him so well and blaze his own trail.

Spruce Derden-USA TODAY Sports

Today, Kentucky coach John Calipari hauled out the "P-words" — "patience" and "process" in his annual remarks at the Greater Louisville Alumni Tip-Off Luncheon at the Galt House in Louisville today. Consider:

Nevertheless, be patient, Calipari told more than 1,000 fans and alumni Monday at the annual Greater Louisville Alumni Tip-Off Luncheon at the Galt House in Louisville.

"It is going to be a process just like last season," Coach Cal said. "You can’t skip steps."

I get this. I do. I know you do as well, dear card-carrying member of the Big Blue Nation. But I must dissent slightly from Calipari with respect to both patience and process, although perhaps I am picking nits rather than disagreeing with him — in fact, I think we do need both, especially considering last year’s interesting results.

However, this counsel was dramatically more necessary last year than next, with so much of the team having zero college experience, and major pieces of it not reaching campus until just before the beginning of the season. Patience was absolutely necessary in hindsight. But this year is quite a bit different.

Not only have all the freshmen arrived early, but Karl-Anthony Towns eschewed playing in the FIBA World Championships for the Dominican Republic in order to better develop his skills before the season in a college and team environment. Additionally, the once-every-four-year foreign trip added not only camaraderie and experience to the entire squad (other than the injured Willie Cauley-Sein and Trey Lyles), but also provided a template for John Calipari’s coaching strategy this season, which he reiterated today:

"Yes, we are going to start the season two-platooning with the two guys who are not in that group being a sub at guard and a sub at big if there’s foul trouble, injury, whatever," Calipari said. "So they’re included. And I will do it—my hope is we do it throughout the year. And again, no one’s ever done this before."

I’m not sure that’s quite right — I can remember both Rick Pitino and Tubby Smith using modified versions of the platoon system during their tenure, but in defense of Coach Cal, probably not a true 5-for-5 platoon replacement for virtually every game, and as Calipari has intimated, that’s his intention. Obviously, intentions can and do get modified if things don’t go according to Hoyle, but Coach Cal seems committed to break his recent tradition and use ten or more players for significant stretches of time.

What nobody has done is have a team this deep and talented at their disposal, save perhaps some North Carolina and Connecticut teams from early in the last decade, and of course the 1996 Kentucky Wildcats team, widely considered to be the deepest in NCAA history. In any case, the 2014-15 Kentucky basketball team is almost certainly either the most or second-most talented men’s college basketball team in modern history. I think it is arguable that the UCLA teams of four decades ago were at least as talented, although definitely not as deep.

Calipari was frank about his decision to do this:

"Listen, folks, I have never coached this way," Coach Cal said. "I haven’t. But I’m going to. And I’m studying and I’m doing everything I can to make this work so every one of these kids eats. And it’s not going to be easy."

I can very much sympathize with this. It will take a lot of discipline, and may even cost Kentucky a game or two, for Calipari to temper his instincts and let "every one of these kids eat." We all know from the last five years of experience that Calipari took to heart the advice he received from John Wooden to play a short rotation. Let’s be honest, that advice has helped produce three Final Fours and one NCAA Tournament championship in only five years. It’s really hard to justify messing with a winning formula, but Calipari is doing so by reason of practicing what he preaches — "players first." Consider this from back in 2010:

"He [Wooden] told me I was playing too many guys,’‘ Calipari said. "I told him the best team I coached, I only played six guys at UMass [in 1996]. The problem is that I’ve got a lot of guys who deserve to play.’‘

He’s faced with exactly that problem again, but to a significantly greater extent. Back in 2009-10, Kentucky had lots of guys who deserved to play, and a pretty deep team to boot. But Calipari decided to trust Wooden’s council, and nobody could argue that it was unwise based on the spectacular results he has achieved at Kentucky during his tenure.

Unfortunately, Wooden’s advice has run head-on into Calipari's "players first" philosophy, and with the astonishing array of talent at his disposal and a philosophy that places the dreams and aspirations of the players above both his own success and that of the program, at least we can emphatically say that Calipari is not a hypocrite, at least not at this point. He is charting his own path, one that has no track record of success under his direction, and one that arguably the greatest college basketball coach in history counseled him personally against.

That’s bold, folks. When Calipari tells you that this has never been tried, he really means it has never been tried by him. Calipari understands that he’s throwing out, at least in the beginning, part of a formula that has done little but succeed at Kentucky. But frankly, he has painted himself into a bit of a corner on this one — his "players first" philosophy, the one that he has touted to recruits across America, literally demands the platoon approach, and if it fails, we’ll be seeing more articles like this one from Pat Forde last season. Forde had to eat crow on that one, but next year could be a different story.

They say that fortune favors the bold. Let’s hope "they" are right.