Calipari: This Year's UK Basketball Team Could Be 'Crazy Good'
That’s the word Kentucky head coach John Calipari used to describe the prospect of playing Willie Cauley-Stein, Karl-Anthony Towns and Alex Poythress at the same time during the upcoming basketball season.
Chalk that combination up as one of many “nutty” ones that Calipari will be able to use, after the majority of last year’s national runner-up team returned, and a class of four more McDonald’s All-Americans were added to the fold. And it will be done via the “platoon system,” which includes a five-man team being replaced by another five-man group during games.
“It’s (the platoon system) never been done where the players have benefited,” Calipari said. “It’s been done where the program benefited and coaches benefited, but it’s never been done where players benefited. That’s the challenge that we’ll have. I think that if you can get two groups that are balanced yet good enough, we can do it.”
The system worked during Kentucky’s off-season trip to the Bahamas, even without the services of Cauley-Stein and Trey Lyles, who were recovering from injuries.
And Cauley-Stein, now heading into his junior season, could end up being one of the most crucial components to the 2014-15 campaign.
“The way I saw Willie play the other day – it just, you have to figure out some offense, but Willie’s playing like he’s a three,” Calipari said. “Like we throw it ahead, he’s in the open court crossing and throwing balls out, and I’m like, ‘Holy jeez.’”
Cauley-Stein was just one of six 2013-14 contributors who returned, even after potential NBA interest. He, Aaron and Andrew Harrison, Dakari Johnson, Alex Poythress and Marcus Lee all were given the opportunity to at least evaluate how they would do in the NBA Draft.
“As it got closer, I thought, ‘Maybe I am not ready to take that step,’” Cauley-Stein said. “Maybe I am not ready to be out on my own yet doing my own thing. Maybe I have a little more growing up to do.”
According to Calipari, both Lee and Johnson said they didn’t want to know where they were projected. Cauley-Stein said he wanted to return pretty much immediately after the national championship game, where Kentucky lost to Connecticut, 60-54.
Poythress soon followed, and the Harrison twins – in a surprise even to Calipari – announced their return to chase the title that barely got away from them.
Now, the Wildcats have more depth than they probably have ever had under Calipari. Thus the platoon system, where Calipari has discussed being able to put in his “best shooting team,” his “catch-up team” if Kentucky is behind, his “great defensive team,” or his “pressing team.”
The combinations are endless with this amount of talent. But the real key will be how the team meshes with its own expectations. Last year, the preseason “40-0” talk weighed heavily on the team, and players were in a pressure cooker. Not that fans’ expectations ever decrease when it comes to Kentucky basketball, but this year’s team will be better equipped to handle them.
It starts with the veterans teaching the newcomers how to adjust.
“Just give them tips about what coach expects and help them out,” Aaron Harrison said. “There were some things last year that I didn’t know that I didn’t get help with, and try to make sure they (the freshmen) don’t go through the same things, the kind of things you can only learn by experience like I did last year.”
It also starts with the team playing together, even before the season starts. The Bahamas trip helped, and so, too, does pickup basketball, which this year’s squad has been participating in often.
“These guys – they play pickup five, six nights a week. That’s important,” Calipari said. “They’re doing it themselves, and they all like to compete and play, which is a big deal. I’ve been on teams here, that we had to call to get them to play pickup.”
And this year’s team certainly won’t run out of players for pickup games. Or size, for that matter – Kentucky has 10 players on the roster who are listed at 6-6 or taller. When some of those players are capable of playing multiple positions, too, there is only one word to describe it all.
Ashley Scoby is a senior journalism major at the University of Kentucky. She has reported on the Wildcats for wildcathoops.com, vaughtsviews.com and kysportsreport.com as well as for newspapers in Danville and Glasgow. This column first appeared at KY Forward.
Photo via UK Athletics