UK Men's Basketball

Less can be more, Calipari says about playing time for 2018-19 Cats

PJ Washington dunked for two of his 13 points against Team Toronto on Aug. 12 in the Bahamas.
PJ Washington dunked for two of his 13 points against Team Toronto on Aug. 12 in the Bahamas. UK Athletics

Kentucky’s games in the Bahamas raised a question that might loom over this coming season: How will John Calipari find enough playing time for everyone given a roster seemingly bursting with productive players?

“The max minutes you want to play, if you’re smart, is 27 minutes,” he said after the final game in the Bahamas. “Maybe 28. You don’t want to play 34. Too many ugly things pop up. ... The team may need you to play more, but you want to play 27 or 28. And I think we’ll have a lot of guys do that.”

Reid Travis led UK in the Bahamas with an average of 27.8 minutes per game. PJ Washington was close behind at 27.3.

Overall, UK had seven players average more than 20 minutes, and nine averaged 18.3 or more. Presuming Jemarl Baker joins the mix, that’s 10 players vying for significant playing time.

When asked about 27 minutes being the ideal playing time, the father of last season’s leading scorer for UK, Kevin Knox, said, “Yeah. But 10 kids can’t play 27 minutes.”

True. Ten players times 27 minutes equals 270. A college game consists of 200 minutes (40 minutes per five positions).

And if playing 34 minutes breeds “ugly things,” Kentucky has had several exceptions to this rule.

Hustle plays by Ashton Hagans helped set a tone for UK in the Bahamas. Reid Travis explained the source of that spirit. (Photo by Chet White of UK Athletics)

Eight UK players in Calipari’s time as coach have averaged 34 or more minutes in either a season or in SEC games or both. Of those eight, Tyler Ulis (36.8 minutes) and John Wall (34.8) were voted SEC Player of the Year in 2015-16 and 2009-10, respectively. Jamal Murray (35.2) was named to the 2015-16 All-SEC first team.

And as for such a workload wearing down a player, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (36.1 per league game in 2017-18) and Wall were named Most Valuable Player in their SEC tournaments, while Brandon Knight (35.9 in 2010-11) made the All-SEC Tournament team.

Three other players who averaged 34 minutes per SEC game made the all-league first team (Nerlens Noel in 2012-13 and Malik Monk in 2016-17) or second team (Patrick Patterson in 2009-10).

But then there’s this: No player on UK’s national championship teams of 1996 and 1998 averaged more than 28.2 minutes. And Derrick Rose’s average of 29.2 minutes led Calipari’s 2008 Final Four team at Memphis.

However, UK’s national championship team of 2012 had four players who averaged 31 or more minutes: Marquis Teague (32.6), Anthony Davis (32.0), Doron Lamb (31.2) and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist (31.1). And all five starters on Calipari’s captivating UMass team that advanced to the 1996 Final Four averaged 30 or more minutes: Edgar Padilla (36.5), Carmelo Travieso (35.8), Dana Dingle (32.5), Marcus Camby (30.6) and Donta Bright (30.5).

Message: There’s no magic formula regarding playing time that ensures championships. But referencing “ugly things” can help sell players on less playing time.

Quade Green downplayed the meaning of the Kentucky basketball team's blowout victories in the Bahamas. (Photo by Chet White of UK Athletics)

Two fathers of former Wildcats were adamant about how a coach must convince players to sacrifice minutes.

“Everybody wants to play as many minutes as possible,” Kevin Knox Sr. said. “Don’t ever let someone tell you different.”

James Ulis said of playing time, “Players are competitive people. They want to be on the field. They want to be on the court. ... They ain’t coming out. So I think it’s a real big deal.”

Tyler Ulis makes for an interesting test case. With Kentucky using platoons in 2014-15, he averaged 23.8 minutes and the team won its first 38 games. In the following season, he logged 36.8 minutes, the most of any player in Calipari’s time as UK coach, and The Associated Press named him a first-team All-American.

And as for wearing down, Ulis’ assist-to-turnover ratio was almost identical in those two seasons: 3.553-to-1 in 2014-15 and 3.565-to-1 in 2015-16.

The idea that all players want the maximum amount of playing time prompts an interesting question: Which season did Ulis enjoy more? Playing about half the time in the 38-0 run to the Final Four? Or hardly leaving the court the following season as UK posted a 27-9 record?

“Well, he’s the ultimate winner,” his father said. ‘So he puts winning over all. It’s the 38-0. You never heard anyone on that team talk about minutes. ... I’d say all the parents were comfortable with what was going on. There may have been one parent who was a little concerned.”

James Ulis declined to name this parent who seemed concerned about playing time.

“I sat with them,” he said of the parents. “When you’re winning, that definitely changes that (impulse to obsess about playing time).”

Of course, Kentucky usually has an abundance of talent that can reduce any individual player’s playing time. UK sells this to recruits as a good thing. You will improve by practicing against NBA-caliber players every day. UK can be a training ground for the NBA where playing with other ultra-talented players is the norm.

The elder Knox noted how his son signed with Kentucky even though several McDonald’s All-Americans had already committed to UK.

“I wasn’t concerned about who they signed,” the elder Knox said. “What I was concerned about was what Kevin Knox needed to do at Kentucky to become a better player and ultimately reach his dream to get to the NBA.”

No surprise that rival recruiters don’t see it that way. They tell recruits that Kentucky means less playing time.

“They do it all the time,” the elder Knox said. “‘Why would you go somewhere to have to split time. That person plays the same position you play. You don’t have that here. We have to play you. You’re going to get all the minutes you want.’

“That’s not necessarily the best thing.”

John Calipari tried to bring perspective to UK’s dominating play in the Bahamas. (Photo by Chet White of UK Athletics)

Bill Bradley at UK

Former All-American, U.S. senator and presidential candidate Bill Bradley will be the featured speaker at UK’s Fall 2018 Wendell H. Ford Public Policy Lecture.

The event will be held Oct. 16 at the Worsham Cinema in UK’s Gatton Student Center. It begins at 3:30 p.m. Admission is free for students, faculty and the public.

Bradley, who now works as managing director of Allen and Company LLC in New York, was a college basketball phenomenon as a player for Princeton in the mid-1960s. He averaged 30.5 points in a career capped by him leading Princeton to the 1965 Final Four. That’s one of only four times an Ivy League team has played in the Final Four (Penn in 1979, Dartmouth in 1942 and 1944).

Bradley’s basketball career included a brush with Kentucky. He set three UKIT records playing for Princeton in 1963 in Kentucky’s now defunct holiday tournament. His 47 points in the consolation game against Wisconsin was a UKIT record as was his 77 points in two games. His 18 baskets against Wisconsin was a third record.

The records for points in one game and two games had previously been set by Jerry West of West Virginia in 1959.

After his college career, Bradley played for the New York Knicks. He later was elected to the Senate from New Jersey and served with Kentucky Sen. Wendell Ford from 1979 to 1997.

Previous speakers at the Ford Lecture include Pulitzer Prize-winning author Jon Meacham and former senators Alan Simpson (Wyoming) and Tom Daschle (South Dakota).

‘Fearless predictions’

In case you missed it, Joe Boozell of recently posted what he called “64 fearless predictions” for the 2018-19 season. Among them were:

UK will have its best team since the national championship team of 2011-12.

John Calipari will win his second national championship (and UK’s ninth).

PJ Washington will average more points than Reid Travis.

Nassir Little of North Carolina and Romeo Langford of Indiana will be the most impactful freshmen.

Ohio State will finish higher than expected in the Big Ten. “The Chris Holtmann effect is real,” Boozell wrote of the Ohio State coach and Jessamine County native.

Jontay Porter of Missouri and Tremont Waters of LSU will average a double-double and 20 points, respectively.

Rupp auction

Inspired by her husband’s 40th birthday, UK fan Tiffany Thacker spent more than $4,000 for items at the Aug. 16 auction of Rupp Arena memorabilia.

Thacker made winning bids for a four-by-eight-foot section of the original court, a horn from the original sound system affectionately known as Big Bertha, cabinets used by long-time equipment manager Bill Keightley and stained glass panels honoring Adolph Rupp and Frank Ramsey.

“We’re huge Kentucky fans,” she said.

While Thacker attended the auction, her husband, Jimmy, stayed at home with their 4-month-old daughter, Paislee Blue-Raine Thacker.

Thacker, a State Farm insurance agent, said she hoped to put the items on display at her office on Pimlico Parkway in Lexington.

The auction raised more than $37,000, plus created big savings in disposal cost, Lexington Center Corp. president and CEO Bill Owen said.

Happy birthday

To PJ Washington. He turned 20 on Thursday. ... To Kent Hollenbeck. He turned 68 on Friday. ... To Richie Farmer. He turned 49 on Saturday. ... To UK Director of Athletics Mitch Barnhart. He turns 59 on Monday. ... To Morakinyo “Mike” Williams. He turns 30 on Wednesday. ... To referee Tony Greene. He turns 69 on Wednesday. ... To Bob Guyette. He turns 65 on Wednesday.