How Will John Calipari Mold Kentucky's Loaded Roster into a Juggernaut?

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How Will John Calipari Mold Kentucky's Loaded Roster into a Juggernaut?
Andy Lyons/Getty Images

John Calipari somehow convinced six McDonald's All-Americans to sign with him in the last year. It was an incredible feat. Now comes the hard part. Calipari has to figure out a way to fit those six in a rotation with the two NBA talents leftover from his last roster.

The early word out of Lexington is good from Calipari. He told ESPN.com's Andy Katz that he's been impressed with the chemistry of the group. Of course, in the summer, he gets to play 10 at a time. Everyone's happy when they're on the court.

Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports
Kentucky's six incoming McDonald's All-Americans pose together.

When you start trying to figure out how Calipari is going to juggle his rotation when he gets to only play five at a time, it's a tough puzzle to solve. He has two centers who are NBA talents and would obviously start on most teams. Could he play them both at the same time? One issue there: He has the same "problem" at power forward and small forward.

Calipari has had great talent before. He thrives at getting NBA prospects to play defense and play together. See the 2012 title team. That's why this experiment should work. But he hasn't had this kind of talent before—or actually, this much talent.

Calipari, for most of his career, has stuck to a tight rotation. The following chart shows the number of players he's played 15-plus and 20-plus minutes in each season dating back to 2000-2001 when he took over at Memphis. I chose 15 minutes because I deem that the minimum to be a true rotation player. And when you're a McDonald’s All-American and/or an NBA prospect, you probably expect to play at least 20 minutes.

  15-plus min. 20-plus min.
Memphis 2000-01 8 6
Memphis 2001-02  7 7
Memphis 2002-03  8 8
Memphis 2003-04  7 6
Memphis 2004-05  8 6
Memphis 2005-06  8 6
Memphis 2006-07  7 7
Memphis 2007-08  6 5
Memphis 2008-09  6 5
Kentucky 2009-10  6 5
Kentucky 2010-11 6 6
Kentucky 2011-12  6 6
Kentucky 2012-13  7 7

 

It will be difficult for Calipari to play all eight guys who figure to be in his rotation 20-plus minutes, especially the frontcourt players. During the one season Calipari played eight guys 20-plus minutes (2002-03), five of the eight players in that rotation missed a combined 35 games. That's how he was able to distribute all those minutes.

The good news for Calipari is that it sounds like he has three alpha males on the roster—the Harrison twins and power forward Julius Randle. They "are going to be the leaders," he told Katz.

Joshua Lindsey-USA TODAY Sports
Alex Poythress started 31 of 33 games last season. He'll battle James Young this year for the small forward starting spot.

That makes it convenient because those are three spots where there won't be a debate on who will be starting. The Harrisons don't have any competition in the backcourt, and Randle is the consensus most talented guy on the roster.

The two position battles to watch are at center and small forward, and Calipari told Katz that Dakari Johnson has been a surprise and is going to push Willie Cauley-Stein.

"Willie is going to have work for it," he said. 

It's assumed that all talent will lead to success no matter who wins the battles, but how the losers—or the guys who struggle to get minutes—react will be something to watch. That's where the Harrison twins and Randle will have to step up as leaders.

Buying those guys as leaders isn't all that unreal. Calipari's championship team also had freshmen as leaders, but those Wildcats also had some upperclassmen in the mix.

That's what makes this roster so intriguing. It's not just that they'll be led by freshmen, it's that all eight are underclassmen. Can he win with such a young roster? Can he manage that many egos?

If anything, he didn't have enough egos—or alpha dogs—last year. He also didn't have enough competition at certain positions. Going from one extreme to another will be an interesting experiment to watch. 

So far, Calipari is doing a good job selling that it'll work, but it's a pretty easy sell in the summer.

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