An Analysis Of Kentucky's Platoon System

By Camden Joiner on December 6, 2014

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Head coach of the Kentucky Wildcats, John Calipari, has his team in a very unique situation this season. Perhaps the best recruiter in all of college basketball, Calipari usually has his hands full with talented players looking for playing time.

However, considering the NCAA’s one-and-done rule, many of his stars only stick around for one season before entering the NBA Draft. Some of these players, including Anthony Davis, John Wall, and DeMarcus Cousins, are a few of the most talented players in the NBA.

But at the conclusion of last season, many of Calipari’s future stars decided to stick around for one more year. While Julius Randle and James Young elected to enter the draft, the Harrison Twins, Alex Poythress, and centers Willie Cauley-Stein and Dakari Johnson, among others, returned to school.

Kentucky’s draft class was still remarkable per usual, which put John Calipari in a difficult situation, albeit sounding a bit counter-intuitive. But these highly touted recruits, from last season and the new freshman coming in, expect their fair share of playing time and the potential issues surrounding the lack thereof does indeed put Calipari in said difficult situation.

So in part to give these players their fair share, John Calipari decided to do something that’s rarely seen in basketball today. He developed a platoon system. A platoon system is two separate sets of five players on the court.

Normal basketball dictates subbing in and out a few players at one time. Despite tip off and crunch time, the group of five players on the floor is usually a mix between starters and role players. However, with the platoon system, Calipari pulls all five starters out at once, and replaces them with five different fresh players off the bench.

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This system makes sense ideally; it can establish a great chemistry between each respective platoon, as well as having fresh players on the court throughout the game. But in modern basketball, teams simply aren’t deep enough to have five bench players all playing at once.

But, in this modern unique situation, the combination of Calipari’s returning starters as well as his freshman high recruits has indeed given Calipari that depth.

Blue Platoon:

PG: Andrew Harrison

SG: Aaron Harrison

SF: Alex Poythress

PF: Karl-Anthony Towns

C: Willie Cauley-Stein

The starting and lead group of five, the blue platoon, mostly feature returning starters for Kentucky. The Harrison twins led the Wildcats at guard last season, Cauley-Stein usually earned the start at center, and Alex Poythress was Calipari’s sixth man last year.

However the blue platoon’s best player is freshman Karl-Anthony Towns. Towns has all the tools needed when crafting the perfect basketball player: he can shoot, make a difficult pass, and he’s a brilliant defender. Oh, and did I mention he’s 6-foot-11?

This group is obviously the best platoon. The guards provide plenty of scoring and the back court might be the best group of three, defensively, in the nation. But no matter their ability, this platoon still splits playing time with the other.

White Platoon:

PG: Tyler Ulis

SG: Devin Booker

SF: Marcus Lee

PF: Trey Lyles

C: Dakari Johnson

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My biggest concern for the White Platoon is their ability to put points on the board. Defense is no problem for this group; Dakari Johnson is just as talented as Willie Cauley-Stein, Marcus Lee proved his prowess in last season’s March Madness tournament, and Trey Lyles was ranked even higher than Karl-Anthony Towns by ESPN, despite that being an obvious oversight.

But the pair of guards for the white platoon are cause for some concern. Both are freshman, Tyler Ulis stands a short 5-foot-9 for basketball standards and shooter Devin Booker will need a consistent lights out jumper to keep the white platoon offensively afloat.

The back court could of course provide some offensive help, but with their load so heavy on the defensive side of the ball, it’s certainly questionable whether this white platoon can really warrant as much playing time as they’re getting.

Luckily, these potential problems haven’t arisen yet. Kentucky is still undefeated, playing well, and ranked the No. 1 team in the nation. The blue platoon is currently averaging 79.8 points per 40 minutes. The white platoon? Seventy-nine even.

The platoon system is ideologically exhilarating for basketball nerds, but it’s quite possible that this gimmick will eventually fade. It will be up to the white platoon to secure their own minutes, but as the season progresses, that will become harder and harder to justify.

But if any one coach can stick to their guns and make it work, it would be John Calipari.

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