The Basketball Island of Dr. Calipari: Will His Platoon System Work or Crash?


Is it possible that the University of Kentucky’s men’s basketball coach John Calipari has bitten off more than he can chew with his stacked line up of nine McDonald’s All-Americans? And has he possibly opened Pandora’s box, and maybe even weakened his own position, by rolling out a platoon system that ensures that ten players will see fairly equal playing time? And is NCAA college basketball on the cusp of some potentially damaging changes? Possibly.

John CalipariIn 2012, Coach John Calipari, known for his brash and bold statements, managed to one up even himself. Standing before the rabid faithful Big Blue Nation, of whom I do swear allegiance, he declared that UK basketball was the “gold standard” of college basketball. He spoke of wins and losses, of championships, and of a “player’s first” program designed to develop and move on highly talented players to the NBA. And yes, I can hear all of the boo’s, hisses, and name calling from here.

Now, while even I found this concept of UK as the “sun” position of college basketball’s solar system a rather embarrassing and overreaching statement, perhaps he was not wrong. And please, hear me out before you click away.

For the 2014-2015, Calipari and his uber-talented Wildcats are rolling out a platoon based system for its players. The team, filled to the brim with NBA caliber players, will roll out two complete five man lineups throughout its games. Essentially, this is a line or shift change in hockey; one complete set of men in, one complete set out.

And while most non-UK college basketball fans may not care in the least that this is occurring, there are two groups of people that seem to: The college coaches, and the incoming college players.

While this platoon like system is not unheard of, it is unusual. The University of North Carolina rolled out a five freshman platoon in 2010. Ranked number 13 at the time, the team quickly rolled off nine loses in its next 11 games. Needless to say, that system failed to impress anyone.

UK 14-15But despite the limited success of this style, Coach Calipari has repeatedly stated his desire to work through the kinks of this system, and ensure that the myriad of talented players on his team would get a somewhat equal share of game time. In fact, Duke and Coach K rolled out a similar system just days ago in there destruction of small school Livingstone. This should not be considered particularly avante guard, as like UK, Duke’s team is loaded with nine McDonald’s All Americans.

Coach K has stated that he would not use this system during the season unless there was a benefit to his teams performance. Coach Rick Patino of the 5th-ranked Louisville Cardinals, has spoken at length about his mass substitution system he used while leading the same University of Kentucky Wildcats to an NCAA championship in 1996. In short, the coaches see what is happening, and they are watching very closely.

As for the incoming athletes, the success of this platoon system may offer some unique options for the future. Perhaps gone are the days of laboring behind an upper classman while they await their turn for the spotlight. As many of the sports highest rated players are waiting until the spring signing period, you can bet that many eyes will be turned to the Kentucky model, and their ears trained to coaches that reference it.

While it may be a stretch, the end result may be a number of colleges forming more or less “super teams”, in which they are able to play ten players without fear of a drop off in talent. The clout that schools like Duke, UNC, Kansas, Florida, and Connecticut offer, along with the option of practicing with other “soon to be pro’s”, could be too great for top tier players to move on to less crowded schools.

kentucky magCould this spell doom to the mid major conferences, which tend to get the players that did not fit onto the previously overcrowded rosters of the bigger schools? Could the difference between the have’s and the have not’s grow even greater? Is the March Madness Cinderella turning into a talent starved pumpkin?

The answer, and likely as he prefers it, comes back to Calipari. If his platoon system works, and a number of his players are rewarded with high selections in the upcoming draft, a change may begin. The ramifications, tied with the infamous “one and done” rule, could be quite interesting.

And lastly, could Calipari, known for his recruiting prowess, be showing his hand a bit. Imitation is a form of flattery, and if he is successful, there could be platoon systems popping up all over. But first, he has to make it work. The proof, they say, is in the pudding.

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