At first glance, Kentucky Wildcats coach John Calipari has two problems with his 2014-15 roster:
He has too much size.
He has too many players.
That's the closest you can come to criticizing the 2014-15 Wildcats, which should tell you everything you need to know about Kentucky under Calipari. These are not real criticisms of actual problems. They're godsends any coach in college basketball -- or in the NBA, or in your local under-30 league -- would happily sign on for. Wait: You're telling me my team is too good?
Still, UK's embarrassment of roster riches does pose a tricky question for the inventive man in charge: How can everybody play?
First, we should remind you who "everybody" is. Last spring, fresh off a run to the national title game, Aaron Harrison, Andrew Harrison, Dakari Johnson, Marcus Lee, Willie Cauley-Stein and Alex Poythress all decided to return to Lexington for another season. If those players had left, Kentucky would still have been fine. That's because, as is tradition, four five-star players arrived this summer. They are: Trey Lyles, Karl Towns Jr., Devin Booker and Tyler Ulis. Respectively, they rank Nos. 6, 9, 18 and 25 in the 2014 ESPN 100. In any other year, they would form the backbone of another freshmen-led Wildcats lineup. In 2014-15, on a team with nine McDonald's All-Americans, they'll be fighting for playing time.
Which brings us back to the original question. There are, after all, only so many minutes to go around. Lineup calculus can be the most difficult, nuanced knot a coach must untie; NBA franchises spend god-knows-how-much on advanced plus-minus metrics alone. Simple tweaks can produce surprising results. Who play well with whom, and why, are the enduring mysteries of modern basketball.
In Lexington, Calipari has at least 10 potential starters. Of them, five of the most talented -- Cauley-Stein, Johnson, Lee, Towns and Lyles -- are forwards taller than 6-foot-10. Seriously: How on earth do you get everyone on the court?
Last week, during Kentucky's exhibition run in the Bahamas, Calipari unveiled his answer: the platoon. It is an obvious but still mind-blowing idea -- an Alexandrian solution for the modern college hoops empire. And it's really, really exciting.
On Sunday, when the Courier-Journal's Kyle Tucker asked him whether the two-platoon system could really work, Calipari said:
"I think so. I think so. There may be games it's difficult to win [doing that]. The only ones that are the most important to win are those last six. So, yeah. And I think what happened here was, the greatest thing is everyone had a chance to show they should be playing more or less, they should be playing or not playing. You can't say, 'Well, I've never had an opportunity.'"
"I also think that when you two-platoon and you have guys playing 20 minutes, which is plenty of time, the reality of it is three or four more minutes a half [in a normal rotation]. Just play harder. You get more done, you're more efficient. So playing 20 minutes a game, everybody had their time. And I think every guy shined."
The Wildcats finished their Bahamas trip 5-1 overall. After five mostly convincing blowouts, they took a late and exhausted loss to the Dominican Republic on Sunday. They managed that without Cauley-Stein and Lyles, who both sat out to nurse minor injuries. The mood was appropriately light, and the reviews of just about every player in the Wildcats' orbit -- all the way down to Ulis, who is 5-foot-9 and thus an oddity on an extremely tall team -- were positive. These were exhibitions, which means it is worth withholding sweeping conclusions.
And even so: At this early date, it's clear Kentucky really does have 10 totally starting-spot-worthy players on its roster. Back in April, the idea was more like a funny concept for a video-game simulation. It couldn't actually work in the real world, at a conventional Division I (read: not Grinnell) college basketball program, with genuine NBA talent. Eventually, Calipari would settle on a starting lineup, because that's what you do. You try to untangle the knot. We should have known better.
"Who gets to platoon?!" ESPN's Jay Bilas said to a Kentucky radio station last week. "You just don't do that. [Calipari] can legitimately platoon and not take a drop off at all."
So yeah, as of mid-August, that's what I'm most excited to see in 2014-15: a real, legitimate five-in-five-out platoon, a team so big and talented that its coach can split it into two discrete groups and still almost always have the five best players on the court.
Too much size? Too many players? Why untie a knot when you can slice it in half?