To platoon, or not to platoon — that is the question.
The devastating loss of Alex Poythress leaves Kentucky without its starting forward and best pure athlete, so John Calipari has a difficult coaching decision on his hands, one day before North Carolina comes to town.
Does he reload his platoons and stay the course? Or does he abort and abandon the two-team system?
There are so many options and combinations at his disposal, and it will take more than a game or two to figure out what’s best long term. But for now, something has to be done on the fly to make up for the loss of No. 22.
Let’s start with the simple option: insert Derek Willis into the Blue or White platoon. Whether it be starting alongside the twins, Towns and Willie Cauley-Stein or replacing Trey Lyles in the second wave while Lyles moves up, Willis may see his number called for a regular appearance in the 10-man rotation. Cal said at the beginning of the year that Willis will be used as a reserve for an injured forward in the two platoons; well, Kentucky has its injured forward.
If Cal doesn’t trust Willis as a full-time contributor but wants to keep platooning, he could go small with the White team by promoting Dominique Hawkins. Hawkins and Tyler Ulis would make for an undersized backcourt but their ball pressure would be suffocating. Booker would slide over to the three in that look, giving UK a platoon that could match up well with a quick opponent. Of course, Booker could also play with the Harrisons, keeping Lyles on Team White to make up for the lack of size at the guard position. That could be a situational call made on a game-by-game basis.
And then there is abandoning Operation Platoon altogether and going with a traditional eight-man rotation. Many fans hope this is the route Calipari takes, but I think Cal is too stubborn to give up on the system he spent the entire fall marketing. Cal wants platooning to work because his biggest critics say it won’t. He wants it to work because it’s never been done before, like winning a national title with freshmen and sophomores had never been done before. And above all that, Cal wants equal playing time for his players because they deserve it, and it worked through the first 10 games of the season.
Who knows what’s going through Coach Cal’s mind right now; he was just blindsided with a horrible loss at a terrible time of the season. Alex’s injury comes at the beginning of UK’s toughest three-game stretch on the schedule and the Cats have no time to toy with new schemes and rotations. They’re left to reevaluate what they spent over a quarter of the season practicing, all on the fly, with North Carolina, UCLA and Louisville as the practice dummies. It’ll be interesting — and nerve-racking — to see how it all plays out.
My guess is Cal will stick with the platoons, rotating Willis and Hawkins as the tenth man. But if Willis and Hawkins can’t consistently produce, Cal can’t be too hardheaded to give up on the platoons.
We’ll have a better idea of what he plans to do in about three hours when he addresses the media at 2:00 pm.