One of Kentucky basketball’s most obvious advantages this season has been its prodigious size, but the Wildcats haven’t always played up to their lofty potential. Even when power forward Julius Randle has been at the top of his game—as in Tuesday’s rout of Ole Miss—the unsettled center position has been a recurring cause for concern for John Calipari.
Coach Cal’s current solution involves starting freshman Dakari Johnson every night but frequently (as against the Rebels) giving the huge bulk of the minutes to Willie Cauley-Stein. Although Johnson’s increased confidence—and the team’s confidence in him—has been a major plus, the current rotation doesn’t go far enough in exploiting the wildly different skill sets of the two towering underclassmen.
Instead, Calipari should take a page from baseball’s playbook and go to even more of a platoon approach rather than keeping either player in the starting lineup full time.
Against opponents likely to play a fast-paced game (such as Arkansas next week), there’s little benefit to starting Johnson when Cauley-Stein gives the ‘Cats a more favorable matchup. Johnson won't be able to keep up with the transition game in such a matchup, whereas the sophomore's superior defense can cut down on easy buckets allowed.
Conversely, against a team that will really test Kentucky’s offense—or one, like LSU, that seems to have Cauley-Stein’s number—starting Johnson makes perfect sense, as it gives the Wildcats a few extra minutes with a legitimate offensive weapon at center.
For many teams, the choice of starter would be largely cosmetic, which is precisely how Calipari treated it earlier this year, using freshman Marcus Lee solely to win the opening tip. However, Kentucky has proven that it’s even more sensitive to momentum than most young teams, and the importance of setting the tone of a game early—and thus, of optimizing the starting five—shouldn’t be underestimated.
Indeed, Lee, who’s been banished to the furthest reaches of the bench lately, might also have something to offer in an ideal center rotation.
After all, in a game where transition defense is paramount, such as last weekend’s painful loss to Florida, it wouldn’t be a bad idea to use the fleet-footed Lee instead of plodding classmate Johnson as the second option in the pivot. Like Cauley-Stein, he's an imposing shot-blocker for all his offensive faults.
With Kentucky now facing a run of opponents whom (with few exceptions) it’s already seen once this season, Calipari will have plenty of data to help him figure out which big men are going to flourish on a given night. As strong as the allure of a concrete starting lineup is, he needs to make the riskier move of swapping his centers for favorable matchups even before the game tips off.
After all, with the exception of that ugly loss to the Gators, every defeat Kentucky has suffered this season has been by a margin of five points or fewer—i.e., two possessions, tops. If changing the starting center can give Kentucky just two improved possessions off the opening tip, that could make all the difference in the loss column by the end of a game.
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