UK Men's Basketball

UK basketball: Next phase of platoon system is finding the 'finishing five'

A fresh platoon of Kentucky players prepared to enter the game against Georgetown College. From left, guards Aaron and Andrew Harrison, and forwards Karl-Anthony Towns, Willie Cauley-Stein and Alex Poythress.
A fresh platoon of Kentucky players prepared to enter the game against Georgetown College. From left, guards Aaron and Andrew Harrison, and forwards Karl-Anthony Towns, Willie Cauley-Stein and Alex Poythress. Herald-Leader

After Kentucky completed exhibition play Sunday by steamrolling Georgetown College 121-52, Coach John Calipari said he would assess the platoon system a month or so into the season.

"After 10 or 12 games, I'll evaluate if we need to tweak anything," he said. "Is this the best way we can play to go compete for the whole thing? And that's what my job is: to evaluate that and figure it out."

When asked whether he was comfortable with the platoons as currently constituted, Calipari said, "You know, I'm comfortable."

Calipari emphasized that the UK staff must ponder which five players it wants on the floor in the final minutes of a close game. With an average margin of victory of 58.5 points, the exhibitions failed to give Kentucky a chance to test its players under possession-by-possession pressure.

"I've asked each staff member to give me a finishing five that we would want to finish off a game with," Calipari said. "Would it be that veteran team with Karl (Anthony Towns)? Or would there be a substitution or two in there? And what would that be?

"And I've asked them to give me their opinions. I have my own. But I want to hear what they're saying."

UK played the same platoons against Georgetown that it did in the exhibition season opener the weekend before against Pikeville. The result was similarly one-sided.

The starters were Aaron and Andrew Harrison, Alex Poythress, Willie Cauley-Stein and Karl-Anthony Towns. The second platoon had Trey Lyles, Tyler Ulis, Devin Booker, Marcus Lee and Dakari Johnson.

No Wildcat played even 20 minutes. Cauley-Stein and Ulis led the way with 19 minutes each. No platoon player logged less than 15 minutes except Andrew Harrison, who fouled out in 13 minutes in what surely was a basketball rarity: a crowd shrugged at the sight of a celebrated point guard exiting so early.

Aaron Harrison acknowledged trepidation when he first learned of the platoon idea, if only because of its novelty.

"Of course, at the beginning, you're questioning," he said. "Just the new type of play. You just wonder about it."

Lyles sounded like a believer.

"The two platoon (system) definitely works," he said. "Teams aren't ready for it. They get tired. Then we have another platoon coming in and going right back at them. So it definitely helps.

"I think everybody's bought into it. We see that it's helping everybody out. Everybody's playing the same amount of minutes, so you can't complain about that."

Although Kentucky romped in the exhibitions against Pikeville and Georgetown, the Cats have not lacked for competition. Each platoon gets it from the other.

"We talk trash in practice and things like that," Aaron Harrison said. "And when we do scrimmage, we want to win. So of course there's a little rivalry like that, but we know we're one team. And it's not us against them or them against us or anything."

The players keep track of the scores in platoon-versus-platoon play.

"Oh, definitely," Aaron Harrison said. "That's the competitive part. I think that's helped us a lot. It's definitely helped me a lot. Having to be on my game every day in practice will make me a better player this year."

He judged the Cats ready for the season, which begins Friday against Grand Canyon.

When asked whether Kentucky was missing anything going into the opener, Aaron Harrison said, "No one has every phase covered. But I think that we're doing well overall. If anything, of course, we just have to work on our help defense. Because we have some young guys. And I think that they're learning really quickly, but we each have to come together and realize that we have to guard everybody's man."

Beat NBA teams?

After Kentucky beat his team by 69 points, Georgetown Coach Chris Briggs pronounced the Cats good by NBA standards.

"They could have beaten some NBA teams tonight," he said. "There's no question in my mind."

Later, Briggs embellished. "If they play like they did tonight, they're an NBA playoff team."

To which Calipari used a tweet Monday to try to brake the runaway enthusiasm.

"I hear Coach Briggs got excited after the game last night," Calipari tweeted. "Let me be clear: If we played ANY NBA team, we would get buried. ANY."

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