John Calipari Faces His Greatest Challenge Yet at Kentucky: Way Too Much Talent
Too much talent. If that's not the most John Calipari problem ever, I don't know what is.
But that's exactly what the University of Kentucky basketball coach faces this year, and contrary to popular belief, it's one he's never had to face before during his time in Lexington.
Only in his first year did he have nine players who averaged double-digit minutes. The next year: six. The championship season? Seven. Last year was a supremely underachieving eight.
In the Wildcats' first exhibition game against Transylvania, 11 players played nine minutes or more. And that was without Andrew Harrison even being available. And this was not Cal trotting out players just for the sake of it. All those players will figure into the game plan in one way or another.
So we're looking at potentially 12 players who could see significant playing time this season. That's a lot for your average team, but it's an insane amount for a team as talented as this one. One of the players to only see nine minutes? Just McDonald's All-American Marcus Lee, who didn't even see a minute of playing time in the first half.
The question for Calipari teams has always been, "How do you manage all that talent with just one ball to go around?" He answered it definitively when the Wildcats won the national championship in 2012.
Calipari has often trumpeted how Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, the No. 1 and 2 NBA draft picks respectively, averaged the fourth- and fifth-most shots. That's been his go-to recruiting line. You don't need to score for me to get you to the NBA. You just have to be on the team and play your role.
But even on the loaded teams that were most successful, they were loaded for a starting unit with a weak bench that Calipari rarely used. This time around, the next five players after Kentucky's starters would be a Top 25 team on their own. For goodness sake, there are eight players on the roster who were McDonald's All-Americans at one point.
The guard play is going to be the easiest to deal with, shuffling around the Harrison twins and James Young between two spots for the most part. Throw in a little Jarrod Polson to spell Andrew Harrison, but it's not like you need to find him minutes. It's when you get to the 3-4-5 positions where things get crowded.
Obviously, Julius Randle should always play unless he needs to be taken out. Then you spell him and get him back into the game. Period. So that leaves two spots open for Willie Cauley-Stein, Alex Poythress, Marcus Lee and Dakari Johnson. That's quite a logjam.
And that's not even mentioning finding minutes for Derek Willis, Dominique Hawkins and Jon Hood, who could all potentially provide a decent spark off the bench. It's not like these guys need to play, but I don't foresee a lot of DNPs in their future.
Calipari has always relied on freshmen at Kentucky. Even the best have faltered along the way, but they were the only real options, so they had to play their way out of it. They grew up fast. That either worked out great (first three years) or ended in an unmitigated disaster (last year). It will be interesting to see how Cal handles things this time around.
We've already seen from the Transy game that he is not afraid to use a line change to sub in five new players and get an underperforming group out of the game. It's a great motivational tool and one Kentucky fans would have given their left foot for last season.
But with the kind of options the Wildcats have this year, will the freshmen be allowed to play through their mistakes and learn trial-by-fire style? Or will the threat of a quick hook stifle that?
It's possible that Kentucky will settle into a seven- or eight-man rotation and that some players will truly have to deal with a season of sitting the bench and being asked to contribute for just five minutes a game. But I don't think that's going to be the case. I think Calipari is excited about having this much talent to juggle and feels up to the task of keeping all those balls in the air. Even with just one ball on the court.
If he can pull it off, Kentucky is about to have another season for the ages.
What a problem. Poor John Calipari.
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