UK Men's Basketball

Despite its amount of talent, history, analysts say Kentucky isn't invincible

Kentucky guard Aaron Harrison and Georgetown College guard/forward Tony Kimbro went after a loose ball during the first half.
Kentucky guard Aaron Harrison and Georgetown College guard/forward Tony Kimbro went after a loose ball during the first half. Herald-Leader

A wary coach tries to anticipate issues and-or temper fan expectations. So with the season beginning this weekend, Kentucky's John Calipari recalled two David-and-Goliath games from his coaching past. Twice, his Massachusetts teams felled No. 1 teams: a 104-80 rout of defending national champion Arkansas in the 1994 Tipoff Classic and a 92-82 battle of wills against ultimate national champion Kentucky in November 1995.

Moral of those memories: For all of its supposed superiority in talent and depth, No. 1 Kentucky is not invincible. Calipari implied that the Cats could be vulnerable to a tight-knit opponent loaded with the greater cohesion produced by a shorter rotation of players.

ESPN analyst Jay Bilas questioned how often such a scenario will lead to defeat for Kentucky this season.

"I think John and his staff are going to be able to make adjustments in a given game," Bilas said on a teleconference Monday. "In most games, they're not going to have to. I hope this doesn't sound disrespectful to Kentucky's opponents, but I think for a good part of the schedule, maybe half, ... Kentucky's practices may be more competitive than their games."

When told that Calipari, on Sunday, cited UMass victories over Arkansas and Kentucky in the mid-1990s as cautionary tales for the current Cats, Bilas seemed unmoved.

"I guess," he said before adding with a hint of exasperation, "They're probably going to drop a game here or there. They're not going to go undefeated. (Pause) I don't think."

Calipari didn't mention that those UMass teams in the mid-1990s were hardly lightweights. The Minutemen were ranked No. 3 going into the Arkansas game and No. 7 when facing Kentucky.

The current Cats, who demolished two NAIA teams by an average margin of 58.5 points in pre-season exhibitions, hardly varied from a much-discussed platoon system. By definition, a 10-player rotation means fewer game minutes together as a unit than what ESPN analyst Seth Greenberg said was the ideal produced by an eight-player rotation: five starters with one substitute at point guard, wing and the front line.

But Greenberg suggested that the Cats will have plenty of cohesion this season. "They stay in those platoons every day in practice," he said. "So within the platoons, they're developing a really good chemistry."

Not that Greenberg saw no potential problems with cohesion for Kentucky this season.

"The challenge for John is not chemistry for about (the first) 32 minutes of a game," he said. Greenberg wondered aloud about whether Kentucky will have enough cohesion in late-game situations, at least early in the season.

"A good-hands team," he said, "or a press-offense team."

Coincidentally, Calipari said after UK's victory over Georgetown College on Sunday that he would ask the assistant coaches for input on how to handle late-game situations.

Kentucky's biggest concern might be against teams that can apply pressure defense. Greenberg and Bilas mentioned Florida, Louisville, Kansas and Arkansas.

That could be a bad match for a Kentucky team featuring an unusual amount of big men.

"He's going to have to go with three perimeter players," Greenberg said. "You know, 'real' perimeter players. Not playing (Trey) Lyles or (Alex) Poythress at 'three.'"

Greenberg and Bilas endorsed UK's platoon system, an idea born of necessity when Aaron and Andrew Harrison, Willie Cauley-Stein, Dakari Johnson and Poythress chose to return this season.

Bilas said it was "really smart" of Calipari to go with platoons.

"It allows all the players to keep competitive," he said. "They don't get stuck in roles.

Recalling watching UK play in the Bahamas in August, Bilas noticed a practical benefit with platoons. "Those teams got worn out," he said of the pro teams UK played in the Bahamas.

Bilas also suggested another, perhaps more subtle, benefit.

"This is what I think is the brilliant part of this," he said. "Kentucky's going to win games whether they play platoons or not."

But the platoons shifted attention from individual agendas associated with playing time and NBA aspirations.

"Instead of that being discussed — who should play and who should sit — the discussion right now is about the system and it's about the team.

"Cal has done that beautifully."

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