UK Men's Basketball

Sunday exhibition vs. Pikeville a test run for Kentucky's platoon system

Kenny Payne
said the Bahamas trip gave UK a blueprint of how to deal with its depth.
Kenny Payne said the Bahamas trip gave UK a blueprint of how to deal with its depth.

Two days before Kentucky's first pre-season exhibition game, assistant coach Kenny Payne voiced confidence that a player rotation based on a platoon system will work. With 12 players capable of contributing, it must.

"We don't have a choice," Payne told reporters in an update Friday. "We've got 12 really good players. We've got to find time for all of them. And they all deserve to play."

Kentucky plays Pikeville Sunday in an exhibition opener. But, of course, that's not the first test drive of the much-discussed platoon system.

Payne noted that UK's trip to the Bahamas in August served as a chance to play five-man units, each rotating with the other for a 40-minute game. At approximately each television timeout, the same five players replaced five other players.

"The Bahamas trip gave us a blueprint of how we've got to do this," Payne said. "And it starts with sharing the ball offensively.

"But defensively dictating the pace of the game, (imposing) our will on that team. If we do that, it can work. It will work."

In floating the platoon idea, UK Coach John Calipari has given himself plenty of wiggle room. Foul trouble. Injury. A player with a hot — or cold — shooting hand. Lack of effort in what he's called "non-negotiables." Free-throw shooting ability. All can move Kentucky away from a strict platoon system.

Even in the Bahamas, UK coaches showed flexibility. The platoon units stayed intact during romps to victories in the first four games. But when the final two games came down to the final minutes, Kentucky abandoned the platoons.

Payne did not disclose which five players will start for Kentucky against Pikeville.

"I have no idea," he said with a smile. "That's why you have Coach Cal."

Payne did note that Kentuckians Derek Willis and Dominique Hawkins, the presumed 11th and 12th players in the system, will be substitutes for both five-man units.

After the Blue-White Game on Monday, Calipari said he did not want to play the four freshmen on the same unit. For instance, Payne noted how UK would not want to play freshmen big men Karl-Anthony Towns and Trey Lyles together or two low-post scorers like Dakari Johnson and Towns.

"It's important that the freshmen have a veteran out there with them to help them through tough times," Payne said. "That's really, really important."

Even nine McDonald's All-Americans, plus all-league defensive player Willie Cauley-Stein, are not immunity against adversity.

"It's going to be a process, now," Payne said with caution in his voice. "It's not going to be just come out there and steam-roll people. I know the fans don't want to hear that. They want to think that we've got a bunch of talent. (But) people are going to come after us. We're going to have to learn through adversity, and play hard."

After the Blue-White Game, Towns and Johnson embraced the idea of platoons. Payne said he did not expect playing time to be an issue.

"Right now, I'd say, no," he said. "Everybody's bought in. It's vital what we did in the Bahamas. It showed that it can work. And these guys — really at their core — are about winning. And that's important.

"So right now, everybody has bought in. We don't expect them not to have bought in. We just have to make it work. And it will. It will."