Pushing the Platoon – Who Will Start?

John Calipari isn’t known for going with the crowd. It seems like every season he is trying something new, challenging the norm and changing the way college basketball is played. For years he has pushed his players-first mentality to a level that few coaches do. A couple weeks ago he became the first college coach to hold a private combine for NBA teams to come and scout his players. Now, Calipari plans on using a system that has never successfully been used before in colligate basketball.

This “platoon system” that has analysts, fans and even coaches talking, in theory, is designed to put together two different five-man teams in order to rotate them in and out, providing two completely different groups that an opposing team must prepare for. The idea would be that whenever one group needs rest or a specific game situation calls for a different set of players, Cal would simply substitute all five players at once, changing the make-up of the game completely.

While the effectiveness of this system and how well it will last through the season has long been debated, the idea is intriguing nonetheless. Even if this system doesn’t work and even if it doesn’t last, it has many UK fans asking questions. So for the sake of this article, we are going to assume that this platoon system is going to work. Let’s assume that, while there might be some bumps in the road, Calipari will stay strong in his plan and come out on top, again changing college basketball forever. With that aside, for the next couple days we are going to address some of the burning questions that Kentucky basketball fans have been asking.

Question #1: Who will make up the starting five?

For the first time since Calipari arrived in Lexington, he potentially could put together a freshman-less starting five. This lineup would have the Harrison twins, both sophomores, at the guard spots. The three remaining spots could potentially go returning juniors (doesn’t that sound weird) Alex Poythress and Willie Cauley-Stein, and then sophomore Dakari Johnson could then fill in the final spot. An argument could even be made for sophomore Marcus Lee getting the nod at the four or three spot, but he’d most likely be coming off the bench.

The idea of such an experienced line-up may seem enticing for many fans. However, while these tournament-hardened players may find themselves on the court together sometime this season, it is unlikely we will ever hear all of those names called in succession come game-day lineup introductions. There is simply too much talent and versatility in this freshmen class for Cal to pass on for the starting five.

On the flip side, Cal could very realistically put together a nearly-all-freshman team as well. This imaginary lineup would have freshmen Tyler Ulis and Devin Booker at the one and two spots. The two remaining freshmen, Karl-Anthony Towns and Trey Lyles would be the big men in the lineup, with the possibility of either of them playing one of three remaining positions. Because there are only four freshmen in this year’s class, a sophomore would have to be pulled in for this group. Johnson would be the most likely candidate for this, playing the true center position and leaving the three and four two Lyles and Towns.

While this starting five would probably be considered one of the top ten in the country, it is probably not the platoon we’d see this year. Calipari, of course, has never been afraid to start freshmen, but in a year where he has both experience and talent, it is unlikely that he will totally rely upon the young guns of this year’s freshmen class.

Calipari has hired a statistician, Joel Justus, to break down every player’s strengths and how well each one plays together. The factors that go into those statistics are way beyond the mind of this BlueCoast Live reporter, but if it comes down to the numbers, it is hard to say who will get the nod on opening night. But for the sake of this article, we are going to take give you the five players that would give the team the best chance of winning any given game.

As most would agree, the starting lineup Cal puts forward in the season-opener is probably going to be a mix of the two lineups above. I truly do believe Cal is going to rely upon experience this year. Especially in the beginning of the season, the value of tournament experience cannot be overlooked. This is the reason the Harrison twins will be in the starting five. Their leadership and the fact that they are clutch, simply can’t be matched by any other guard on the team. And their size causes matchup problems for almost any backcourt in the country.

The final three positions might be a bit harder to name. Arguments for Lee and even Lyles could be made, and each of them has their own strengths, but I do think that Cal will go with the experience once again and will go with Poythress. Many people think that he will be playing the role that Darius Miller played on the 2012 championship team, but I don’t see that. Miller was much more of a shooter, which made him great coming off the bench. That isn’t Poythress’ game. He may not get a lot of points, but he will be the leader on that team and he will do it in the starting lineup.

Karl-Anthony Towns will take the four. It’s really that simple. He is the most versatile player on the team, the Gatorade High School Player of the Year and leading candidate to be selected as the number one overall pick in next year’s NBA draft. He will start and he will score in bunches.

It is the last position that there is a little less clarity. Being the center spot, this position will go to one of the two true centers on the team: Dakari Johnson or Willie Cauley-Stein. Both have their upsides and both have their areas of weakness. Cauley-Stein is more a defensive threat but Johnson is the type of player who will bully you down in the post and get those tough baskets. However, at the end of the day, the starting job will fall to Cauley-Stein. Not only does he protect the rim, but he also is the more athletic of the two big men and has added to his offensive game as well. But, Johnson is close behind him, having lost weight over the summer and can now run the floor better than what we saw last season. Both players are going to get their minutes, and may even split the time evenly, but at the start of the season at least, Cauley-Stein will have the job.

As stated before, the starters could change many times during the course of the season. Depending on each player’s development or the opponent they are playing, the lineup could look different every given week. And with all the statistics Justus is gathering, Cal will be learning just how effective his platoon combinations are. Still, at the end of the day, if Calipari wants to have the best chance to win the game, the five he will put on the court will be the guys who took him to a championship, plus the best freshmen in the country.

We’ll take a look at the second question later this week. 

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