College Basketball Nation: Kentucky Wildcats
For example, the Wildcats shoot about 34 percent from 3. The team's most frequent 3-point shooter, guard Aaron Harrison, is 25-of-88 on the season. The team's best 3-point shooters, Tyler Ulis and Devin Booker, have attempted just 89 3s combined. As a group, UK shoots 3s on just 30.5 percent of its overall field goal attempts, which ranks 255th nationally. John Calipari's offense is not designed around multiple-read screens and pindowns away from the ball. It's just not how UK is built.
All of a sudden, and somewhat weirdly, this is no longer the case.
On Monday, our amigos at ESPN Stats & Information unearthed a rather remarkable statistic: Since Christmas, no team in the country has been less accurate inside the arc. In its first 12 games, the Wildcats shot 54.2 percent from 2. Since Dec. 25, Kentucky has made just 33.9 percent -- the worst figure in the country.
Per the Stats & Info group, that has translated into a drastic dip in interior production. Before Christmas, Kentucky averaged 36.7 points per game in the paint, 11th most among major conference programs. In their past three games, the Wildcats are averaging 21.3 paint points, ninth fewest among the major conferences.
There are caveats, of course. One of those three games came against Louisville's own interior swarm. The second, against Ole Miss (itself a surprisingly tough interior defense), UK still scored 89 points in 75 possessions, thanks to an 11-of-20 3-point shooting mark and 40 trips to the free throw line; offense wasn't really the problem there. And, of course, there is the fact that three games is a very small sample size, and probably not indicative of the Wildcats' abilities overall.
Drawing too many conclusions seems like a bad idea. The soundest defensive strategy against Kentucky surely involves packing in as many defenders as deep as possible, encouraging outside shots, and fighting like crazy to keep the Wildcats off the glass. Will the continued application of such a strategy make Kentucky's offense less likely, over the long run, to gobble up easy interior buckets? Will constant zone defenses make it more reliant on perimeter shooting? Is this just the randomness inherent in any three-game window? Is UK just unlucky?
There's no easy answer, and there may be no answer at all, but bears watching. Without interior buckets, Kentucky's offense will look very average, which in turn will put even more pressure on the Wildcats' top-ranked defense. The current Kentucky narrative surrounds the ongoing Tyler Ulis-Andrew Harrison discussion and Calipari's exhortations about swagger. Meanwhile, the lone constant in Kentucky's two close SEC calls is far more tangible -- and probably far more important -- than any of that.
Those are lofty expectations, but they exist for good reason. Not only is the rest of the SEC mediocre, but the Wildcats' specific and overwhelming strengths aren't subject to the inconsistencies of playing on the road. Kentucky doesn't need to make shots to win a surprisingly tough visit to, say, South Carolina. Its offense can be slightly less than perfect from time to time. Its lineup never has to be ideal. Neither a cold night from the floor nor a pouty starting guard will necessarily doom it to defeat.
Those are the two most likely options: maintenance or slight regression. But what about the third option? What if Kentucky still has room to improve?
In a Monday news conference, Calipari hinted at the things his staff have "zeroed in on" in the nine days since a road win at Louisville:
"Before we played Louisville, our biggest issue was our defensive rebounding. Our percentage offensive rebounding was off the charts. Nearly 50 percent of our misses, we were rebounding. But defensively, it was off the charts the wrong way. We were 13th in our league. So we zeroed in on it. So now there's a few areas that we're looking at, like, 'OK, let's now keep these players engaged and get them to focus on a couple areas,' which is what we've done the last seven, eight days. And obviously I'm not talking about those things. But you'll see them."
Louisville rebounded 38.3 percent of its misses on Dec. 27, roughly their season average. That's not a particularly low number, but amid UK's usual no-chance first-shot defense around the rim, and the Cardinals' horrid shooting from the perimeter, a merely average offensive rebounding cancelled out Louisville's only obvious scoring hope.
This fits a theme. Offensive rebounding has been Kentucky's lone defensive "flaw" this season -- the Wildcats allow opponents to grab just 33 percent of their misses on average, which ranks 272nd in the country. That number is the natural stylistic outgrowth of having so many big men attempt to block so many shots. It's almost a choice. And it hasn't mattered, because Kentucky allows the lowest 2-point shooting, and blocks the most shots, in college basketball. Oh, you grabbed an offensive rebound? Way to go! Now try putting it in the basket. You see the problem.
Still, Calipari's quote got the wheels turning: What if Kentucky does get better on the defensive boards? It's hardly inconceivable. A slight tweak to interior defensive rotations might do the trick. Maybe, instead of launching every 7-footer on the floor at an impending interior shot, Calipari drills his off-ball defenders to stay home. With this much tall talent at his disposal, is it that hard to imagine Kentucky altering the same number of shots while also chasing down more defensive rebounds? Is it impossible to picture this team, so overwhelmingly better than its conference schedule, adding new dimensions on the fly?
It isn't, right? Which means that as good as UK's defense has been so far, there is at least a possibility that it will get better. At which point we'll be dealing less with a college basketball team's great defense than an organism whose structural perfection is matched only by its hostility.
We can't lie to the rest of the SEC about its chances. But it does have our sympathies.
- Did Tom Izzo cost his team its Big Ten opener Tuesday night? SB Nation makes the case in three parts. The first error -- calling a timeout that halted a potentially game-sealing fast break, and ended up with Matt Costello on the line in the final moments of regulation -- is genuinely glaring. The second (calling a timeout to set up his defense, giving the timeout-less Terps a chance to plan on offense) is less so, especially given how well-defended the Terps' last possession was. And the third -- not fouling Dez Wells when ahead by three just before Wells hit the game-tying shot with five seconds to play -- was probably the right call. Sure, Wells is shooting 53 percent from 3 this season, but that's on just 13 attempts; he has never been a prolific long-range shooter. The shot was awkward and tightly guarded and at the end of an absolutely horrific shooting night for the Terps (who finished 2-of-19 from 3-point range). It went in, which makes the result seem questionable in retrospect. But save the first timeout, Izzo can probably live with the process that preceded it. After the game, the coach said he was "open for a lot of criticism," but that he almost never fouled when up three in his career. "They went 2-for-19 from the 3, so I went with my odds," Izzo said. "If I'm criticized for that, that'd be fine."
- Just under the wire, Gary Parrish submits a Rocky Analogy of The Year Award nominee from Virginia coach Tony Bennett: "OK," Bennett said. "So Apollo trains Rocky in that movie, and he keeps telling Rocky that he wants a favor at the end. So they end up in this little gym at the end, and Apollo wants a rematch because he couldn't live with [the loss to Rocky at the end of the previous film]. And then Apollo says to Rocky, 'You fight great ... but I'm a great fighter.' And it's a little like that for us. We don't look at ourselves as this great team. We look at ourselves as a team that, when things are right, we can play at an excellent level."
- Wichita State opens its Missouri Valley season at Drake on Wednesday night, but the Shockers had a minor issue en route to Des Moines. On Tuesday evening, WSU's plane was forced to make an emergency landing after a minor sensor malfunction with its landing gear, according to KWCH. Shortly after takeoff, the pilots noticed the issue, rerouted back to Wichita's Mid-Continent Airport, and landed the plane safely with no injuries to anyone on board. Phew.
- "My belief is that Kentucky's coach has planned, through recruitment and coaching tactics, to build a program that smothers and bullies opponents rather than play basketball the way it should be played. Inevitably, this corruption of college basketball will doom the sport at the college level. No team wants to play that kind of program. I don't understand how Kentucky's players tolerate the loss of athletic play in their present up-and-down routine where true competition is never achieved. The NCAA should reject this corrupted play before other schools reject submitting their programs to participate." That's University of Louisville emeritus professor Michael Cassaro, in a hilarious letter to the editor published by the Louisville Courier-Journal this week. He's wrong, of course -- not about the game itself, because it really was an aesthetic abomination -- but about the underlying causes. You don't need me to explain why. [Louisville's defense is just as smothering, if not more so; Louisville's offense had its share of open shots and made exactly none of them, etc.] This link is here only here because it reminded your author of his own comically overwrought college professors. Ah, memories.
- If you think Wisconsin's inherent likability comes down to just Frank Kaminsky, think again. Just as they were last season, the Badgers are pretty chill from top to bottom. Today, ESPN.com's Myron Medcalf goes deep on star junior wing Sam Dekker, future first-round pick and local Sheboygan, Wisconsin, hero.
It was odd. Jones is a routine starter in Rick Pitino's lineups. He averages 27.5 points per game. His usage rate (25.7 percent) is the highest of any Cardinals player; the same is true of his shots percentage (27.2). This is a matter of some frustration among observers: Jones is an extremely valuable defender whose 30 percent shooting and marginal assist numbers can nonetheless hurt his team as much as it helps. Even so, Jones is not a player you expect to see on the bench for any period of time, especially not with a chance to rebuild some lost confidence after Saturday's horrific 3-of-15 outing.
So why did Pitino put him on the pine? Because of the flop.
On Saturday, Jones attempted the season's most pathetic attempt to draw a flagrant elbow call. During a post-rebound scrum with Kentucky forward Dakari Johnson, Jones acted like he took an elbow to the face. As TV replays showed, the elbow came nowhere close. Worse, Jones kept up the ruse for several minutes, wincing and massaging his jaw, even as the referees viewed the whiff at the scorer's table.
After reviewing the tape, Pitino was none too happy about the display, and he expressed his distaste Tuesday night. From WDRB's Eric Crawford:
“I didn't start Chris, not because of his shooting percentages, I didn't start him because of the flop issue,” Pitino said after Louisville beat Long Beach State 63-48. “I was very upset at that. We don't do that type of thing. And then to fake it with the jaw like you got hit. You can't fake it. In junior college you do it. But you can't fake it. It's on TV. You can't fake those things. So I told him, you're not playing because of that. That's something Louisville guys don't do. But he was the best cheerleader on the bench and he did a great job with the guys.”
Jones also talked about the situation after the game, telling Crawford how he turned the fake-elbow call into an art form as a junior college player at Northwest Florida College. He got so good at it, Jones said, that he could "time the elbows."
It's one thing to fool juco refs without the benefit of replay, and it's doable when nobody is watching your games on TV. Pull that in the middle of Louisville-Kentucky, though, and the Internet is bound to destroy you. Which it promptly did.
Jones said Pitino, after watching tape of the play, called him in and “just said it looked bad. I saw it for myself when we watched on film. So I've stopped doing it. I think [sitting]was the right decision. I never question my coach. It is what it is. I'm moving past it. I cheered my teammates on and stood up like a man. It's just something I'm not going to do anymore. . . . At the end of the day, after you rewind and rewind and rewind, it does embarrass you. When it looks bad on film, you know it's bad, because film don't lie.”
There is no real post-hoc flop punishment rule in place at the college level, no mechanism to allow conferences or the NCAA to go back and suspend players for faking, and maybe there should be. But if every coach handles flopping the way Pitino handled Jones, we won't need to talk about a new rule. What form of discipline is more time-tested, and more effective, than shame?
- The "Should Tyler Ulis Take Andrew Harrison's Minutes?!" discussion is the wrong one to have about this Kentucky team, because, to summarize Monday's rant, Kentucky is much better than everyone else and its exact lineup choices don't even matter. That said, there's no doubt Ulis is a hugely important player for the Wildcats, in that he is an excellent pressure defender and pass-first point guard with clear leadership skills. Which brings us to the counter-factual Gary Parrish highlighted after Saturday's win against Louisville: If Emmanuel Mudiay hadn't chosen SMU over Kentucky (before eventually leaving for China under NCAA scrutiny) Ulis wouldn't have been a Wildcat: "And even if [John] Calipari would've still theoretically offered Ulis with Mudiay committed, is it reasonable to think Ulis would've pledged to the Wildcats had Mudiay been set to enroll in the same class? 'No,' answered Evan Daniels, Scout.com's director of basketball recruiting. 'Ulis would not be at Kentucky if Mudiay had committed to Kentucky instead of SMU.' In other words, what looked like a recruiting-loss then is a recruiting-win now. Rather than secure a commitment from a five-star prospect who would ultimately face eligibility concerns and skip college in favor of a professional career in China, UK missed on Mudiay and instead got a commitment from Ulis just 20 days later."
- Welcome to the Big Ten, Maryland. With a trip to Michigan State, the Terps officially touch down in their new conference Tuesday night, and the introduction should be a fun one. Testudo Times has a preview of the game itself, while The Only Colors distracts itself with some Big Ten projections.
- Eight days after a thrashing at the hands of Temple, Kansas has two games to get right before jumping in the grindhouse that is the 2014-15 Big 12. The first comes Tuesday night, against Kent State. After a week, Bill Self emerged from the film room with some conclusions about his team, namely that the Jayhawks have to play with far greater energy: “What are we, No. 2 in the RPI? And we've played a great schedule,” Self said Monday. “So it's not like it's totally busted, but the last game was broke, without question, and I think that it isn't as much what we do as having the passion and the energy. I don't know if you know this … Jim Harbaugh, his name has been in the press the last couple days, but he spoke to our team last year, and he gave a great statement: ‘Energy always finds the ball.' Energy finds a way to cover up mistakes, and that's what we didn't do against Temple. Now, we are talking about one game. You can go back to Florida, Michigan State, Utah, Georgetown (KU victories), you don't play well, but energy can make up for some things, and that's what I think that we didn't have the other day. We played like a bunch of duds, and then they were really good.”
- Michael Porter Jr. won't be gracing your college-oriented TV set for a couple of years; he's merely a high school sophomore. But he's already drawing plenty of attention, and not because he's a top-five player in the class of 2015. It's because he dunked on a dude from a foot inside the free throw line. Yeesh.
- Over at Insider, ESPN hoops broadcast mage Dan Dakich made his second foray into the written word last week. We missed it at the time (we may or may not have spent all of Friday's break closing fade rifts in the Hinterlands) but Dakich is just as good in print as he is on the telly . His detailed, concise analysis of Virginia's incredible defense is the real gem on offer here.
That number is more impressive than it looks, given the 59 possessions the two rivals shared. Even then, it doesn't quite get to how well Ulis played. He was his usual pestering self at the defensive point of attack. He was also commanding with the ball -- patient, intelligent, unwavering. His second-half 3s (at the 10:38 mark, and again at 7:24) opened up the kind of seven- and eight-point leads from which the Cardinals were never going to recover. He did it all with an intermittently leaking cut above his right eye. He "controlled pretty much the whole game,” as Louisville guard Terry Rozier put it. No one was more valuable to UK's win.
Meanwhile, Andrew Harrison, Kentucky's starting point guard and Ulis' putative platoon counterpart, had one of the worst games of his career. Other than a late 3, he went 0-of-5 from the field, coughed up six turnovers, openly sulked, received a widely noted dressing down from Kentucky coach John Calipari for leaving his huddle too early, and mostly looked miserable even as the Wildcats were polishing off a massive road victory.
The agreed-upon assumption is that Calipari would just love to ditch the platoons and put Ulis atop his One True Rotation, but because he has to keep everyone (read: the Harrisons) happy, his hands are tied. But what about close games? Ulis has to play in close games!
Two days later, let's get one thing clear: It doesn't matter. None of it matters.
ESPN Insider's John Gasaway got at this point in his Sunday column, with Dakari Johnson as the perfect example. Johnson played just 11 minutes Saturday. Marcus Lee played just 10.
So let's say Johnson and Lee are at the end of the bench in non-blowouts. Just imagine if Calipari is ever "forced" to play Johnson, for example. The Wildcats will then be in the perilous position of having to rely on quite possibly their best individual offensive rebounder, a player who's more or less the identical twin of Willie Cauley-Stein in terms of block percentage and a prospect who's projected as a 2015 first-round pick.
The same is true of Kentucky's guards. Ulis and Devin Booker may well represent the Wildcats' best perimeter duo. They certainly provide better outside shooting, the one glaring weakness in the Harrisons' games specifically (they are a combined 28.7 percent from 3 on the season) and the team's offense generally (UK shoots just 32.1 percent from beyond the arc). From an aesthetic standpoint, Ulis' ballhandling really does make Kentucky's offense feel more fluid, less stagnant. But for all that, Andrew Harrison's assist rate is practically the same as Ulis' (31.6 to 32.4) and both players turn it over fairly often (Harrison on 26.8 percent of his possessions, Ulis on 22.9 percent).
But, again, none of this really matters. Even if Harrison were always as bad as he was Saturday and Ulis were always as good, it still wouldn't matter.
Kentucky is playing to world-historic levels on the defensive end. It rampaged through its nonconference slate allowing just 0.82 points per possession (adjusted for competition), mostly because its back line simply does not allow easy interior scores. If the Wildcats keep that up, they will end the season as the best defense of the per-possession era. On Saturday, Rick Pitino said they were "one of the great defensive teams I've seen in my 40 years." Meanwhile, the Wildcats grab 46 percent of available offensive rebounds, likewise the highest mark in the country. Perimeter shooting becomes less crucial when you turn half of your misses into second chances.
Here's a helpful thought experiment: Tomorrow, Ulis decides he no longer cares for the game of basketball. He announces his retirement at the ripe old age of 19, and he looks forward to spending more time with his family. Or whatever. Does Kentucky look any less likely to win the national title? Louisville in the Yum! Center presented Kentucky with by far its toughest test of the season, and with both Harrisons struggling, with its offense scoring less than a point per trip, the Wildcats still escaped unscathed. Do they look any more vulnerable to anyone in the SEC? Look at the Wildcats five toughest games going away: At Florida? At South Carolina? At Georgia? Come on. UK may or may not enter March undefeated, but any loss in the SEC would be a self-inflicted aberration. Are you really going to pick against them?
That's why Calipari will keep Andrew Harrison in the starting lineup. That's why he can revert to playing his top nine guys about 20 minutes per game at the start of SEC play. That's why he doesn't have to worry about any of the potential personnel dilemmas everyone was tweeting about Saturday. He can mix things up as he pleases, and as the matchup dictates, with an eye on overall team cohesion. Only in March, and even then only late in the tournament, will the Wildcats come up against the kind of team (Duke, Virginia, Wisconsin) that might have the right offensive combination to test them.
For now, Kentucky is so much better than the rest of its regular-season opponents that it can afford to keep the Harrison twins happy and heavily involved, even if it means ignoring what might be an "ideal" lineup. There is no opportunity cost there. A slight boost in offensive efficiency is worthless when your defense is impenetrable. "Crunch time" doesn't exist when you're blowing everybody out.
Should Calipari bench the Harrison twins? Should Ulis play more? These are the kinds of questions you're supposed to ask about a college basketball team, the kinds of things almost every coaching staff has to carefully consider.
Kentucky is not one of those teams. Kentucky is so good, the usual rules don't apply.
It's my baby girl's birthday today. @MeganteCalipari turns 25. Ellen and I are so proud of what she's becoming.— John Calipari (@UKCoachCalipari) November 22, 2014
@UKCoachCalipari .... My birthday is tomorrow. #awkward— Megan Calipari (@MeganteCalipari) November 22, 2014
Wait, it's the 22nd? It's not the 23rd?! Oops, @MeganteCalipari's bday is tomorrow. Too many games in too many days! Lol. Love you, Megan.— John Calipari (@UKCoachCalipari) November 22, 2014
It's hard enough remembering the two platoons; I've also got to remember four birthdays!— John Calipari (@UKCoachCalipari) November 22, 2014
- As of this writing, 52 percent of SportsNation respondents believe the Kentucky Wildcats would beat the Philadelphia 76ers in a game of basketball. In case you're among that 52 percent, Rob Dauster is here to set you straight.
- That said, Mike DeCourcy has some interesting thoughts on the topic, not so much a counterpoint as a dash of appropriate context:
Here was my plan: Fed up with the constant assertions the Kentucky Wildcats could defeat an NBA team, and prompted by my editors to address this particular nuisance, I was going to search through the D-League and find a group of players not even good enough for the NBA who would defeat this UK squad. The hitch was, I’m not sure I could find 5 — or, given the whole two-platoon biz, 10 – D-League guys I could comfortably argue would defeat this Kentucky squad. … And thus we have the central problem with the debate over, “Could the Kentucky Wildcats defeat an NBA team?” — What constitutes an NBA team? If it’s merely that they wear the uniforms of an NBA team and are paid relatively handsomely to play the game, even if they bear no particular resemblance to any competitive team ever fielded in the NBA – in other words, if we’re talking about the 2014-15 Philadelphia 76ers – then it’s not ridiculous to assert Kentucky would have a chance to beat that team. It’s far more ridiculous to assert that these Sixers are, in fact, an NBA team.
- Last week, Myron brought you the story of J.P. Honsinger, an 11-year-old member of Albany's 2014 recruiting class. Honsinger, a sixth-grader from Clifton, New York, is diagnosed with Niemann-Pick Type C disease, a extremely rare form of childhood Alzheimer's afflicting just 500 known sufferers worldwide. The program's release made Honsinger's dream come true, and Albany coach Will Brown's effusive praise ("As our point guard of the future, we are going to rely on his exceptional leadership qualities. Nobody in the country will be signing a player with JP’s toughness.") was enough to make at least one writer's apartment unusually dusty. On Thursday, DePaul unveiled a similar gesture, inking 11-year-old Brendan McMahon, who was diagnosed with Duchene Muscular Dystrophy when he was six, to a national letter of intent. "We are tremendously excited about announcing the addition of Brendan McMahon to our program," coach Oliver Purnell said in a release. "We have every confidence that bringing Brendan on board will strengthen the grit, the determination and the heart of our team." This is the best signing day trend in decades.
- In advance of tonight's Indiana-SMU matchup Indiana freshman Emmitt Holt spoke exclusively to ESPN.com's Dana O'Neil about the Nov. 1 accident that left IU forward Devin Davis hospitalized with a traumatic brain injury: "It was just an awful night, to be honest, that probably changed my life forever. It did actually change my life forever. When I went to visit him in the hospital for the first time it was like ... it was ... crazy. Then when we talked the first time, I don't want to go into great detail, but he was trying to comfort me, telling me it wasn't my fault. But deep down, I'll always feel like it was my fault. It was one of those moments where you realize you have to be a better person."
- The best game on Thursday night's schedule is undoubtedly No. 10 Texas's matchup with a deep, experienced and -- thanks to last season's collapse -- probably underrated Iowa team. Our old friend Ryan Clark may not be in Madison Square Garden, but he's still got a totally thorough preview for your pregame consumption.
- As a veteran of several 24-hour tip-off marathon chats -- the archives of which are still available, if you're interested in watching one man's descent into Colonel Kurtz-level madness -- let us offer one piece of advice: Drink lots of water. Oh, sure, you think caffeine is your friend. And for a while, it is. But if you don't stay properly hydrated, there comes a point when your brain will rebel against you, and by the time you realize it you'll be waking up on the couch with the laptop on your stomach wondering how it got to be 10 a.m. so quickly. Heed my warning as you peruse the full schedule for ESPN's seventh annual College Hoops Tip-Off Marathon.
- With that out of the way, the best game in the early marathon docket begins at 11 p.m. ET on ESPN2, when Gonzaga hosts SMU. The Mustangs are without Markus Kennedy, the centerpiece big man recently ruled academically ineligible, not to mention top-five recruit Emmanuel Mudiay, who chose Chinese money over potential NCAA issues this summer. But it's still a sound defensive team and a decent test for a high-octane Bulldogs squad. The Slipper Still Fits has your preview needs covered.
- Harvard entered this season with the momentum, if not the consensus ranking, of a top 25 program. If you know anything about the history of Harvard basketball, that statement might still seem ridiculous. But it was true: The Crimson returned a dynamic core of players from a team that toppled Cincinnati in the NCAA tournament last March (and seriously troubled Michigan State in the round of 32), and Tommy Amaker has established his team's Ivy League hegemony three years running. Even so, the Ivy is a one-bid league, and the Crimson needed to do a bit of work in their nonconference schedule to make sure a random loss or two in regular-season play didn't rob them of a tournament bid down the line. Instead, on Sunday, they lost to Holy Cross. Two days in to the 2014-15 season, the Crimson's margin for error has drastically thinned.
- "Let’s say Kentucky is facing Ole Miss, and Calipari puts one of the Harrisons on Jarvis Summers to start the game. Summers rattles off seven quick points, but when the line change comes, Dominique Hawkins shuts Summers down. Then Hawkins comes out and Summers abuses Harrison again. Is Calipari going to stick with his platoons at that point? Is he really going to remove a player who’s making a positive impact just because the schedule says so? And what about when a Kentucky player has a hot hand? What about foul trouble? What about crunch time? What happens when Cal’s schedule says to leave in Alex Poythress for an important possession, but Poythress’ schedule says he’s due for one of those games in which he just goes through the motions?" In his lengthy SEC preview, Grantland's Mark Titus wonders how long John Calipari can stick with his proposed platoons. On Sunday, the Wildcats got a first-half bruising from Buffalo before eventually pulling away.
- And, last but not least, your Canadian women's 60-foot buzzer-beater of the day.
But as we wrote in the power rankings, our interest in the Wildcats lies not just in whether UK will be good, but how. How do you get so much talent -- not only a swath of returning stars but a loaded 2014 class, too -- into a five-man basketball rotation? John Calipari's answer was predictably radical: He would sort his players into two platoons. Each group would play roughly the same number of minutes. The Wildcats would attack their opponents in waves.
There are plenty of questions worth asking about this idea, chief among them whether so many NBA-hungry talents will be eager to play role-player minutes. There's also the issue of general flexibility. What happens in late-and-close situations? What if one group vastly outperforms the other? And then there's the matter of the groups themselves: Who will play with whom?
The latter query now has an answer. On Monday night, Kentucky will play its annual Blue-White Scrimmage, and on Monday afternoon, via Facebook, Calipari officially assigned hotkeys to his Starcraft-ian Control Groups. They are:
It's worth noting, of course, that this is a first draft, Monday night is just a scrimmage, these teams are subject to change, etc. Still, there are some interesting thoughts here. For starters, no pun intended, it's clear that Calipari wants to mix his returning players with newcomers. Publicly, the coach would likely argue that these configurations simply work better; privately, it's fair to wonder whether avoiding some emergent freshmen-versus-veterans narrative is also a priority.
It's also interesting, though not especially surprising, to see the Harrisons in the same lineup. Earlier this month, Calipari told the ESPN College Basketball Podcast he had considered splitting the duo, to give each a chance to prove themselves as individuals to NBA scouts. "But," Calipari eventually concluded, "for me, to win now, it's best if they play together."
Anyway, platoons! They're totally a real thing, the No. 1 team in the country is totally unveiling them tonight, and you can now totally point to specifics in your arguments against them. So: What do we think?
- 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?
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?
Today, we'll take a look at next year's top offensive teams -- and a few programs that could use some help -- entering the upcoming season.
Teams to Watch
Duke -- Yes, Jabari Parker is gone. The No. 2 pick in last month's NBA draft, the new star for the Milwaukee Bucks, averaged a ridiculous 19.1 points and 8.7 rebounds, while making 36 percent of his 3-pointers for Duke in 2013-14. With Parker in charge, the Blue Devils averaged 79.1 points per game (26th nationally) and finished second in Ken Pomeroy's adjusted offensive efficiency ratings. But they could be even better next year. And that plan starts inside.
Jahlil Okafor, the 6-10,265-pound center who was the No. 1 recruit in the 2014 class per RecruitingNation, will be a force in the post for Mike Krzyzewski. As teams collapse on him, he'll have plenty of options. Rasheed Sulaimon moves back to a full-time role on the perimeter. Freshmen Justise Winslow and Grayson Allen will contribute immediately. Veterans Quinn Cook, Marshall Plumlee and Amile Jefferson are back, too.
Duke will have the benefit of being led by the top point guard in the incoming class: Tyus Jones. Jones was born to be a Duke point guard. His efficiency and poise could transform Duke into America's best offensive unit next season.
Wisconsin -- Remember when Wisconsin couldn't score? That wasn't true, but it was the perception. Under Bo Ryan, the Badgers had been pegged as a grind-it-out squad that couldn't run with the top offensive teams in the country. But last year's Final Four run dismissed that idea.
Wisconsin faced Oregon, Baylor, Arizona and Kentucky in the Big Dance. All four opponents were top-20 in KenPom's adjusted offensive efficiency ratings last year. The Badgers were the better offensive team against three of those teams -- vs. Oregon (1.31 points per possession), vs. Baylor (1.11 PPP) and vs. Arizona (1.05 PPP) -- and the Wildcats beat the Badgers (No. 4 in adjusted offensive efficiency in 2013-14) on Aaron Harrison's big 3-pointer in the final seconds.
The key players from that run and a team that scored 75 points or more in eight of its 12 Big Ten wins are back. Frank Kaminsky will be a preseason All-American and national player of the year candidate. He's the toughest one-on-one matchup in the country. Sam Dekker is an NBA prospect and one of the best small forward's in America. Nigel Hayes and Bronson Koenig are ready for bigger roles next year. Josh Gasser and Traevon Jackson are the leaders in the backcourt. Ryan has the offensive firepower to tussle with America's best again.
Kentucky -- Many predicted the Kentucky national title game run before the 2013-14 season began, questioned that prediction throughout the bulk of the year and lauded it as the Wildcats improved each night in the final weeks of the season. It all came together for John Calipari's squad at the right time. Those young NBA prospects who couldn't get past Arkansas and South Carolina weeks before the tourney began ended the year as the national runner-up and likely No. 1 team in the 2014-15 preseason polls for the second consecutive season. Once the Big Dance began, Kentucky's fiery offense helped the Wildcats storm through the toughest gauntlet in the field. Kansas State, Wichita State, Louisville, Michigan and Wisconsin all fell.
They scored 78 points against the Shockers. They bounced back from a 13-point deficit against their rival Cardinals. They hit big shots late against Michigan and Wisconsin.
And now, they're back with NCAA tourney stars Aaron Harrison and Andrew Harrison. Willie Cauley-Stein will be healthy. Alex Poythress will be a junior. Plus, they'll boast the nation's most powerful frontcourt (Cauley-Stein, Dakari Johnson, Marcus Lee and freshmen Trey Lyles and Karl Towns). The Wildcats will also add Devin Booker and Tyler Ulis, a pair of guards who will enhance Kentucky's backcourt.
These Wildcats will have more inside-outside balance and depth than last year's team. They'll spread the floor. And defenses will be perplexed by their collection of offensive weapons. It'll be a more fluid offense led by a confident Andrew Harrison, who runs this squad now as both a point guard and a leader.
Teams that Might Struggle
Creighton -- It's not necessarily fair to list Creighton here. Every team has to rebuild at some point.
But the Bluejays will enter their next phase after losing Wooden Award winner Doug McDermott, Grant Gibbs, Ethan Wragge and Jahenns Manigat. McDermott's magical three-year run positioned the Bluejays in the top-eight slots of Ken Pomeroy's adjusted offensive efficiency ratings.
The team's departures accounted for 51.3 points per game last year. Austin Chatman, 8.1 PPG, is the top returning scorer and a significant player in this transition. Devin Brooks and freshman Ronnie Harrell Jr. will be asked to help too. And Cal transfer Ricky Kreklow is a solid addition.
But it's not reasonable to expect anything resembling what we've witnessed from the Omaha-based program the last three years. This young team will grow. It will struggle early, however, as it adjusts to new roles and life without Dougie McBuckets.
UCLA -- Steve Alford had a multitude of offensive options last season. Jordan Adams (17.4 PPG) could slash and score or hit jump shots. Kyle Anderson, a 6-foot-9 point forward, was the matchup nightmare. And Zach LaVine, Travis Wear and David Wear provided the balance that helped the Bruins reach the Sweet 16 last year.
But they're all gone. Bryce Alford, Tony Parker, Norman Powell, former UTEP signee Isaac Hamilton and a top-10 recruiting class led by Kevon Looney don't have the same punch (on paper, at least) as last year's crew.
Adams announced that he'd decided to return to UCLA before reversing that decision and entering the NBA draft, where he was selected in the first round by the Memphis Grizzlies.
Adams' return would have answered a lot of questions about this UCLA offense. His departure creates questions. Alford might have a group that builds chemistry quickly and becomes a top offense in the Pac-12. That's no guarantee, though. They were 13th in adjusted offensive efficiency last season.
They'll need freshmen to shine early and returnees to make major strides to regain that slot in 2014-15.
Even college basketball has joined in on the fun. The official Twitter feed of Wisconsin basketball, which was knocked out of the Final Four on a late 3-pointer by Kentucky's Aaron Harrison, dreamed of a scenario in which America's new hero saved the day at JerryWorld.
A Big Ten rival, which suffered the same fate at the hands of Harrison a week earlier in the Elite Eight, found itself playing the "what-if" game as well.
@BadgerMBB Same.— Michigan Basketball (@umichbball) July 3, 2014
1. Justin Jackson, North Carolina
He started out as a 3-point shooter but has developed into a master of the mid-range jump shot. Most outstanding shooters are confident and comfortable from a certain spot on the floor, but that’s not the case with Jackson. He is equally effective and productive from a catch-and-shoot scenario as he is putting the ball on the deck and rising up to finish inside the arc or in the paint. A combination of length, balance and extension with a feathery touch will make him hard to defend.
The term "shooting guard" has never been so meaningless.
Everything in the NBA trickles down, which makes today's exercise -- an early list of shooting guards to watch in the 2014-15 season -- a difficult one. There might be some slight cheating involved (you'll see). Some of the below are traditional shooting guards; some are just guards. All will be fascinating to watch in 2014-15 for a variety of reasons.
Top returnees to watch
Ron Baker, Wichita State: The Shockers return both members of their starting backcourt from 2013-14, and Baker and Fred VanVleet actually do fit the traditional mold. VanVleet was a masterful pass-first point guard who steadily anchored WSU's offense; Baker attempted 179 3s and 141 2s and finished with a 120.9 offensive rating. If you're wondering why the Shockers can lose Cleanthony Early and still be the subject of huge expectations going forward, look no further.
Rasheed Sulaimon, Duke: It's a bit hard to believe that after a stellar freshman campaign Sulaimon found himself so deep in Mike Krzyzewski's doghouse that, in early December, Coach K buried him on the bench in the equivalent of a DNP-CD. Transfer rumors and status questions abounded. Sulaimon eventually earned his way out of purgatory and back into regular minutes, and when he did he flourished. In his junior season, Sulaimon and Quinn Cook will have to take on leadership roles alongside the most talented Duke class in decades -- one with Tyus Jones, Grayson Allen and Justise Winslow ready to gobble up perimeter minutes. It's a huge season on deck for Sulaimon.
Michael Frazier II, Florida: Frazier is that rarest of modern college hoops birds: a traditional, almost literal, shooting guard. In 2013-14, Frazier shot 264 3s and made 118 of them, good for 44.7 percent -- a sterling percentage at that volume. He attempted exactly 79 shots from inside the arc. Frazier is an old-school, lights-out catch-and-shoot guy, albeit one who might need to expand his game in a Florida offense that will lose Scottie Wilbekin, Casey Prather and Patric Young. But he's already the college game's best pure shooter, and that's a hugely valuable skill to have.
Aaron Harrison, Kentucky: Harrison, on the other hand, is a fantastic example of a player for whom the term shooting guard doesn't always quite fit. Despite a torrid postseason pace -- and those big-time clutch shots in Kentucky's surprise runner-up run -- Harrison finished the season having made just 62 of his 174 3s. That's not terrible, but it's not great, either. The presence of Harrison's twin brother, Andrew, as Kentucky's ostensible point guard drives the lack of distinction home. Still, Harrison's fundamental productivity -- and the odds of him improving his shot, and keeping defenders off balance, after a summer spent drilling in Lexington, Kentucky -- makes him as frightening a sophomore prospect as any player in the country.
Caris LeVert, Michigan: Was Nik Stauskas a shooting guard? Not really, which is why NBA scouts love him so much: As a sophomore, Stauskas flashed all of the Stephen Curry-esque tools (lights-out shooting, penetration work, athleticism and great passing) in a 6-foot-6 frame. Stauskas has NBA people all worked up, and understandably so. LeVert is a similar player. He's an excellent shooter whom coach John Beilein loves to run through pick-and-roll sets; according to Synergy an almost identical number of LeVert's possessions came in spot-ups (24.5 percent) as screen-and-roll plays (24.3). LeVert shot 40.8 percent from 3, 46 percent from 2, didn't turn the ball over often, and will get a ton of shots without Stauskas and Glenn Robinson III around this season. He has huge, Big Ten Player of the Year-level potential in his third year in Ann Arbor, Michigan.
Top newcomers to watch
D'Angelo Russell, Ohio State: The top-ranked shooting guard in the class of 2014 arrives at OSU with a reputation for sweet shooting and deep range. The timing is perfect, because another offense-free season like last season might drive coach Thad Matta over the edge.
Isaiah Whitehead, Seton Hall: The best recruit Seton Hall has signed in … wait, don't answer that … Whitehead is a physical scorer who explodes to the rim and absorbs contact while there. He could make Seton Hall's season really interesting for the first time in a while.
Devin Booker, Kentucky: The return of the Harrisons shrank Booker's minutes by a big margin; the fact that he might be the fourth guy off Kentucky's bench tells you all you need to know about next season's Wildcats.
James Blackmon Jr., Indiana: Indiana's wealth of perimeter talent gets Lannister-esque with the addition of Blackmon; whether the Hoosiers will have anybody to play on the low block is a different and more pertinent question.