UK Men's Basketball

Calipari says UCLA's lack of depth can work to Bruins' advantage

Kentucky Wildcats head coach John Calipari made some quick substitutions when players didn't do their job as #1 Kentucky  defeated  Boston University 89-65 on Friday November 21, 2014  in Lexington, Ky. Photo by Mark Cornelison | Staff
Kentucky Wildcats head coach John Calipari made some quick substitutions when players didn't do their job as #1 Kentucky defeated Boston University 89-65 on Friday November 21, 2014 in Lexington, Ky. Photo by Mark Cornelison | Staff Herald-Leader

In terms of depth, UCLA seems an ideal opponent for Kentucky. The Bruins don't have it. Of course, UK has so much of it Coach John Calipari devised a platoon system for substitutions.

Freshman Tyler Ulis, who returns to Chicago for Saturday's game against UCLA, embraced the notion of depth as a critical factor.

"That's the whole idea of the platoon system," he said Thursday. "Trying to bring in fresh bodies and try to wear another team down. So I feel every game we're coming in with the same attitude: try to attack."

Calipari spun depth as a possible factor in UCLA's favor. Stay with Coach Cal here. He said the three best teams he coached used six- or seven-man rotations. That's:

■ 1996 Final Four team at UMass. Each starter averaged more than 30 minutes a game. One substitute averaged 10-plus minutes.

■ 2008 Final Four team at Memphis. Five players averaged between 25.2 and 29.5 minutes. Two substitutes averaged 10-plus minutes.

■ 2012 national championship team at Kentucky. Six players averaged between 26.1 and 32.6 minutes. Freshman Kyle Wiltjer, the seventh man, averaged 11.6 minutes.

It's, uh, problematic that UCLA has no player like Marcus Camby (UMass), Derrick Rose (Memphis) and Anthony Davis (Kentucky): all taken as the overall No. 1 (Rose and Davis) or No. 2 picks (Camby) in that year's NBA Draft. Calipari was talking about cohesion and savviness.

"I just mean unbelievable teams," he said. "Not saying the most talented teams, but I'm telling you the best basketball teams we've had were when I was playing five or six guys."

By Calipari's reckoning, UCLA might have an advantage with four starters averaging between 31.0 and 34.9 minutes. So what if the Bruins average 9.8 points from the bench, while UK averages 33.5. Even with Alex Poythress sitting out the North Carolina game Saturday because of a season-ending knee injury, Kentucky got 33 points from its bench.

UCLA "probably has a really happy team," Calipari said. He called the Bruins an "excited team" because "they know who's playing and who's not playing."

With that glee, UCLA can "play loose," he said.

With that carefree approach, UCLA could take 25 three-pointers and make 15, "which they're capable of," Calipari said. (The Bruins average 18.5 three-point shots and 6.9 three-point baskets.)

If that scenario plays out, "We go on to the next game," Calipari said before correcting himself. "Well, we go to Christmas. Then, we go to the next game."

UK opponents are averaging 5.1 three-point baskets, which would tie for No. 268 in the nation if it were one team. The Cats rank No. 15 in three-point percentage defense (26.7).

But that's not the point.

"I've been on that end of playing six guys," Calipari said. "And they were always my best teams."

UCLA finds itself relatively short-handed because three players from last season's 25-9 team were drafted in the first round of the 2014 NBA Draft: Zach LaVine, Jordan Adams and Kyle Anderson. Another player, Aussie Jonah Bolden, was ruled ineligible.

Second-year coach Steve Alford, the former Indiana hero, acknowledged the difficulty of preparing for a team as big and deep as UK. The task was complicated by this being UCLA's finals week.

"It's a balance of how much you can challenge guys physically as well as mentally," Alford said.

Alford said he liked what he's seen in this week's practices.

"I like our energy," he said. "Hopefully, we'll play that way on Saturday."

In his way, Calipari seeks the same thing. By spinning UCLA's lack of depth as a possible problem for UK, he seems to be working on what he recently said was an overall objective: Keeping the Cats engaged.

Perhaps along those same lines, Calipari bemoaned Kentucky's rebounding. UK ranks No. 11 nationally in rebound margin (plus 10.6), but North Carolina grabbed 18 offensive rebounds Saturday.

After noting that UK ranked next to last among Southeastern Conference teams in defensive rebounding (No. 82 nationally), Calipari called the Cats "the tallest bad defensive rebounding team in the history of the game."

Alford, who presumably hopes Kentucky is not engaged on Saturday, had a different opinion. He called Kentucky "the best rebounding team — hands down — in our country."

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