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Kentucky Basketball: Breaking Down How UK's Platoon System Has Worked So Far

Brian Pedersen@realBJPFeatured ColumnistNovember 27, 2014

Kentucky's "blue" platoon, which normally starts the game, prepares to come in after a break.
Kentucky's "blue" platoon, which normally starts the game, prepares to come in after a break.Andy Lyons/Getty Images

The sample size may be small, but so far there's little debate that Kentucky's platoon system has been wildly successful.

The top-ranked Wildcats have won their first six games by an average of 36.8 points, with their "closest" being the 19-point victory over Buffalo on Nov. 16. Everything else has been by at least 24 points, with three margins of 40 or above.

Most impressive of the lot: a 72-40 thrashing of then-No. 5 Kansas during the Champions Classic.

Such blowouts would have likely led to any team using as many guys for as many minutes as John Calipari has, but not in the way Kentucky's coach has gone about it. While he's had a starting five that (save for illness) has remained the same, Calipari also has a second starting five, and these units more or less sub in for each other every few minutes.

Pat Forde @YahooForde

Kentucky bumps lead to 16 out of halftime ... and now brings in the better platoon. Lace em up tight, KU.

It's been fascinating to watch—unless you're associated with the opponents who've been blitzed by the platoon attack—and even more interesting to break down to see just how this mass-substitution program is working.

Though Calipari has used mostly the five-out, five-in approach, as the breakdown of minutes played shows, that's not always the case:

Kentucky's Playing Time Breakdown
PlayerPositionPlatoon UnitMinutes Per Game
Willie Cauley-SteinFBlue21.5
Aaron HarrisonGBlue21.2
Alex PoythressFBlue20.8
Andrew HarrisonGBlue20.5
Dakari JohnsonCWhite19.8
Tyler UlisGWhite18.5
Karl-Anthony TownsFBlue18.3
Trey LylesFWhite17.8
Devin BookerGWhite17.7
Marcus LeeFWhite15.3
Dominique HawkinsGNone8.6
Derek WillisFNone7.5
Through Nov. 25

Alex Poythress missed two games because of illness, with Dominique Wilkins replacing him in the "blue" platoon. Karl-Anthony Towns' minutes are lower than the rest of his unit because of foul trouble, with him only playing 10 minutes against Buffalo and fouling out.

Hot and cold stretches have also led to a player or two getting subbed early or kept in longer, and Calipari has said that in the final eight minutes of a game the platoons are apt to go away to better handle the situation and matchups. However, since no game has been even remotely in doubt at the eight-minute mark in the second half, it's hard to gauge that part of the system.

Calipari touched on this subject back in August, when Kentucky spent time in the Bahamas playing against professional teams. This is from his website, CoachCal.com, via Eric Lindsey:

You've got to have a team that, say someone's really hurting us in a zone and we say, 'OK, we're putting our best shooting team in,' so we're mixing it up. … What about a team, we get down, we're just playing bad and we just want a catch-up team in there? What would that catch-up team be? Because you've got to both defend and score. What would a team look like if you just wanted it to be a great defensive team? Would it be Willie, Marcus Lee and another big and two guards who are all guarding? What would that team be? What if you needed another pressing team? Who would your best pressing team be? And that may be your catch-up team. So all that stuff will be decided as we practice. I don't even know what the groupings would be.

More challenging games await in the next few weeks, and we could see some shuffling of the platoons or more of subbing only three or four at a time, as was the case Tuesday against Texas-Arlington when the Wildcats got off to a 1-of-7 shooting performance and Calipari subbed Lyles in for Poythress.

Kentucky then made eight of its next nine shots.

Based on how they've performed so far, Booker and Lyles appear to have the best chance to see their minutes increase. Booker is tied with Aaron Harrison for the team scoring lead at 11.2 points per game, while Johnson is shooting 61.8 percent from the field and leads the team in rebounding at eight per game. Booker has also made 46.4 percent of his three-pointers.

Either Sunday against Providence, Dec. 5 against Texas or later in December when Kentucky plays North Carolina, UCLA and Louisville on consecutive Saturdays, there's going to be a time or two when the platoon needs tinkering. That's when we'll see which players Calipari trusts more than others.

Follow Brian J. Pedersen on Twitter at @realBJP.

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