UK Men's Basketball

UK basketball notebook: Could playing-time issues pop the platoon balloon?

Kentucky Wildcats head coach John Calipari less than enthused in the second half as #1 Kentucky defeated  Grand Canyon 85-45 on Friday November 14, 2014  in Lexington, Ky. Photo by Mark Cornelison | Staff
Kentucky Wildcats head coach John Calipari less than enthused in the second half as #1 Kentucky defeated Grand Canyon 85-45 on Friday November 14, 2014 in Lexington, Ky. Photo by Mark Cornelison | Staff Herald-Leader

Of course, everybody has been fine with Kentucky's platoon system so far. What's not to like? The test run in the Bahamas in August went well (physical and mental fatigue, not resistance to five-man platoons, contributed to the one loss).

Then No. 1 Kentucky won its two preseason exhibition games by an average of 58.5 points. The season began with a no-sweat tuneup against Grand Canyon on Friday. Presumably, another comes Sunday against Buffalo.

The real test of how well the players embrace platoons may come as soon as Tuesday when Kentucky plays No. 5 Kansas, an opponent good enough to win the game or pierce the kumbaya, which might be more or less the same thing.

"They're all happy now," Eddie Fogler said in the pre-season. "You know when they're all going to start being unhappy? Some of their guys? After the first game when some of them don't play as much as they think they should. And that's the truth."

Fogler, the conscience of the Southeastern Conference when he coached at Vanderbilt and South Carolina, has never been keen on public relations flimflam. Perhaps not so coincidentally, his college degree was in just-the-facts mathematics.

Fogler did not mean to question the UK players' embrace of platoons. He was merely noting human nature.

UK Coach John Calipari has wondered aloud about the acceptance of platoons. Not by players, he's quick to say. People outside the program that players listen to could be a problem.

In anticipation of potential pitfalls, Calipari has also noted an all-purpose scapegoat: the media.

Hall of Fame sportswriter Bob Ryan voiced doubt that all UK players will be happy all season.

"It's hard to imagine they're all going to be selfless and completely team-oriented and going along with the program for the sake of the whole," he said. "And won't be listening to their brother or their uncle or their father or advisor or their next-door neighbor. Whoever it is and not reacting to that. It's going to be hard."

But it's not impossible. Questions about UK's platoons seemed to amuse Auburn Coach Bruce Pearl at the SEC Media Days.

"I played 10 guys 10-plus minutes my whole career," he said. "The platoon idea may be new at Kentucky. It's been what I've been doing for 20 years as a head coach."

A check of the numbers found Pearl to be only mildly exaggerating. In his six seasons as Tennessee coach, 10 or more players averaged double-digit minutes in four seasons. Twelve Vols averaged between 10.9 and 27.7 minutes in the 2009-10 season.

"The sum of the parts is greater than anything else," Pearl said of using many players. "When you utilize all those parts, it can be overwhelming."

After Kentucky beat Georgetown College last weekend, Aaron Harrison acknowledged being initially puzzled by the idea of platoons.

"Of course, at the beginning, you're questioning, just the new type of play," he said. "You just wonder about it. Now, that we're starting to settle into it, it's worked so far."

Calipari has cited Team USA as an example of standout players sacrificing minutes for the good of the team. No doubt, it's a good example.

But the truth of which Fogler spoke remains.

Syracuse Coach Jim Boeheim, an assistant on several of Mike Krzyzewski's Team USA staffs, noted the limited shelf life of selflessness, even with U-S-A across the jersey. He noted the unavoidable difficulty all coaches have dealing with playing time issues.

"That's a problem we always have," he said. "It's always been a problem. It always will be a problem."

Sound familiar?

Sportswriter Bud Withers previewed the Gonzaga team in the Seattle Times last week. The Zags sounded a lot like Kentucky West: the presumption of abundant talent and the assurances of friction-free camaraderie.

See if you think there's a familiar feel to these excerpts from Withers' story in The Seattle Times:

The Zags have a string of 16 NCAA Tournament appearances, but the 2014-15 roster is evidence enough that just making it 17 isn't going to be enough for those around the program.

"We want to make it to the Final Four," said 6-foot-10 forward Kyle Wiltjer, late of Kentucky. "That has to be our mindset."

Mark Few has taken pains to emphasize team-building exercises, like a weekend retreat to nearby Hayden Lake.

Star wing Byron Wesley noted, "At every position, we're loaded."

But Wesley also said that the Zags are inclined to work together in a common cause.

"It's a really, really likable group of guys," he says. "(But) we knew we had to put an emphasis on team-building, to come together maybe more."

Withers questioned whether a team can have too many players when he wrote, "This latest Gonzaga edition might be a lab experiment in whether a stacked roster means an inverse relationship with cohesiveness."

To which, Wiltjer said, "Honestly, I don't ever see that being an issue because everyone is so unselfish. We have such high-character guys. Everyone wants to win at the end of the day."

'Zombie apocalypse'

In the offseason, Willie Cauley-Stein was asked what class he looked forward to attending. His answer gave pause.

"I heard there's a zombie apocalypse class," he said. "It goes through scenarios of that. I might transfer to that because I want to take it."

As it turned out, Cauley-Stein was not joking. UK's catalog of classes includes "Com 591: Communication and Humanity in a Zombie Apocalypse."

The catalog description made the class sound much more practical, and much less like science fiction, than the course title suggests.

"The purpose of this course is to develop a humanistic understanding of communication and life skills for high-stress situations," it read. "Using the apocalypse as a metaphor for all-hazards scenarios, historical narratives of disaster and films and novels in the zombie genre are used to discuss emergency preparedness and survival strategies. Students will demonstrate an ability to analyze the rhetorical situation of apocalypse, engage in emergency and disaster planning, response, and recovery assignments, activities, and exercises including developing emergency evacuation plans, preparing emergency kits and bug-out bags, and exercising medical triage and first aid."

Bracketology?

ESPN's resident bracketologist, Joe Lunardi, compiled a 2015 NCAA Tournament bracket last week. An immediate question came to mind: Why?

The first games had yet to be played. It's incredible — as in not credible — to see a mock bracket more than two weeks before Thanksgiving. Isn't it?!

"Believe it or not, I agree with you!" Lunardi wrote in an email. "But I get messages all summer long, 'When are you going to update the bracket ...' And a few of them even come from states other than Kentucky!!"

Speaking of Kentucky, Lunardi has the Cats as a No. 1 seed in the Midwest and playing their first two NCAA Tournament games in Louisville. The other No. 1 seeds are Arizona, Wisconsin and Duke.

SEC coaches who bemoan the skimpy three bids in each of the last two NCAA tournaments as a lack of respect, got relatively good news. Lunardi put four SEC teams in the NCAA Tournament. Sort of. Besides UK, there's Florida (a No. 2 seed), Arkansas (a No. 9 seed) and LSU (in a play-in game against upcoming UK opponent Providence).

Fair

The question of what's fair and unfair bobbed to the surface again last week.

ESPN analyst Jay Bilas continued to question the very idea of fairness as a worthwhile objective. During a teleconference, he lampooned fairness as a factor in a coach allotting playing time.

"We sound like a bunch of 6-year-olds," he said before adopting a whiny voice to add, 'It's not fair. His cookie is bigger than mine. He got to push the elevator button.'"

Then Bilas said, "It's so silly. It's not like Little League where everybody gets three innings."

Bilas recalled a comment made by the late Skip Prosser: "Just because you dress up doesn't mean you get a piece of candy. It's not Halloween."

Yet, on Thursday, UK Coach John Calipari cited fairness is a factor in his thinking about using platoons to get 10 or more players into games as this season begins. At least it is for a while.

"I'd rather not do this," he said of the platoon system. "I hope I never have to do this again. Right now, with this team, this is the fairest way to give every one of these kids an opportunity and letting things play out on the court that dictate where we go."

(Big) Blue Ribbon

Kentucky figures prominently in the 2014-15 Blue Ribbon Yearbook. Blue Ribbon, which is the most comprehensive of the pre-season publications, named Kentucky the nation's No. 1 team.

"People joke about Kentucky's first team and second team being ranked in the Top 25, but it's true," senior editor Chris Dortch wrote in an email. "If that were possible, Kentucky's second team could be ranked. That makes it the greatest collection of talent, top to bottom, that I can recall in the 30-plus years I've been covering this game.

"More than just talent, though, there's more experience than Cal (John Calipari) has had on any one team at Kentucky. And finally, the most important element: chemistry, the willingness to share the basketball and play for a team rather than an individual. This team has all the ingredients, and to point out any perceived weaknesses would just be nitpicking."

Blue Ribbon named three UK players to its All-SEC team: Karl-Anthony Towns, Willie Cauley-Stein and Aaron Harrison.

Harrison was the choice for SEC Player of the Year, Towns as the league's Newcomer of the Year.

Hardly a surprise that Blue Ribbon also said that Kentucky has the SEC's best backcourt and best front court.

As for All-America teams, Blue Ribbon named Towns and Harrison to the second team, Cauley-Stein to the third team.

To order Blue Ribbon, check the website www.blueribbonyearbookonline.com.

Happy birthday

To Karl-Anthony Towns. He turned 19 on Saturday. ... To Twany Beckham. He turned 26 on Friday. ... To Jared Prickett. He turned 41 on Friday. ... To Alex Legion. He turns 26 Sunday (today). ... To A.J. Stewart. He turned 26 on Friday. ... To Bret Bearup. He turns 53 on Monday. ... To Clarence Tillman. He turned 54 on Saturday. ... To Sonny Smith. The former Auburn coach turned 78 on Saturday.

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