By the time we approached postseason play – or what we thought was going to be the postseason – a year ago, Kentucky’s rotation had shrunk down to just eight scholarship players. The year before, six players played more than eight minutes in Kentucky’s Elite Eight loss to Auburn. And in 2017-18, seven players earned more than eight minutes in the Sweet 16 loss to Kansas State.
As you continue to go down the list – seven with more than six minutes in 2016-17, eight with at least two minutes in 2015-16, six with over seven minutes in 2013-14, seven with over ten minutes in 2012-13, six with over three minutes in 2011-12, six with over seven minutes in 2010-11, and seven with over ten minutes in 2009-10 – Kentucky’s rotation is almost always dramatically shortened by the time they play their final games of the season.
In fact, even UK’s platoon team that steamrolled the college basketball world during the 2014-15 season only had seven players with over eight minutes of playing time in the team’s loss to Wisconsin in the Final Four.
Looking at the roster for the 2020-21 season, Kentucky finds itself in an interesting dilemma. Originally anticipating ten eligible scholarship players with six incoming recruits, two transfers with the intention of playing immediately, and two returnees from last year, Rhode Island transfer Jacob Toppin also received a waiver for immediate eligibility.
“The question that came back to me was, if all these kids are [getting waivers], why wouldn’t we attempt for the family? Why wouldn’t we attempt it?” UK head coach John Calipari told KSR on Monday. “Well, okay, we will. All of a sudden, it came back that he could play, and now he is.”
As for what he can bring to the table from day one, Calipari says Toppin will be able to make an impact, noting he’s a “terrific addition” to the program.
“He’s going to be a good player,” Calipari said. “Physically, he’s not there yet, but his mind, he’s smart. He’s long, he’s athletic, he’s quick and fast. His skills are good, need to get better, but they’re good. So yeah, he’s a terrific addition. That was mostly, people are getting waivers, why wouldn’t we attempt? And when we did they, they gave it to him.”
Now, Kentucky sits at 11 scholarship players, with all seemingly ready to contribute in some form or fashion. But how much? That’s the next question Calipari and the UK staff will have to answer in the final weeks leading up to the season.
“Well, part of it is you figure out how many guys deserve to play and you figure it out and you play them,” Calipari said. “Normally what happens is it breaks at eight. It’s obvious these seven or eight are better than these four or five, and they’re going to get the most minutes.”
As we saw with the 2014-15 group, sometimes there are circumstances where he has to keep a larger rotation due to the overall talent of the group. And with some rosters, he has to make specific in-season adjustments, such as the one he made last year when Immanuel Quickley became a starter with Ashton Hagans and Tyrese Maxey to give UK a three-guard lineup.
“We had one year where that wasn’t the case, we had ten,” he said. “And I could say, “Well you three aren’t playing.” I don’t do it that way. If there are seven here, [I’ll play seven]. I’ve played six guys because those six separated from the others. I’m not playing people just to play.
“This is America, this is not communism. If you deserve to play, you’re going to play. I’ll figure it out. If someone else deserves it more than you, and there’s no question, he’s playing. I mean, last year we went to three guards. I wasn’t doing that early in the year, but as the year went on, I just said, “Immanuel Quickley, he needs to be starting.” That means somebody else couldn’t start. [Quickley] ended up being Player of the Year in our league, but he trusted me to figure it out. These kids will do the same.”
As for another platoon, Calipari doesn’t see it happening anytime soon, but said if there are ten players on this roster that deserve to play equally, he will. And knowing the draft success that 2014-15 team still had, he’d feel comfortable doing it.
At the end of the day, the best players on this deep, loaded roster will play.
“They’ll trust me, but you know what? They’ll know before I know who those seven, eight, nine are. If it’s nine we play nine. If it’s ten, I platoon. I don’t see it, but if it was that, and there were ten guys that were all playing well? Then we’ll figure it out as a team.
“Now from that team, we had four lottery picks, we had the number one pick, and we ended up having, I believe, nine or ten guys off that team drafted. It didn’t hurt anybody. It didn’t. So if I play nine, it’s because nine deserve to play, and no one will be hurt by it. If we play eight or seven, it’s because though eight or seven absolutely deserve to play, there’s a gap.”
Between four 5-star recruits, two 4-star signees, two scholarship returnees, and three incoming transfers with experience at the collegiate level, the Kentucky coaching staff has its hands full when it comes to roster management and playing time.
And they’ll be the first to tell you, it’s a great problem to have.