When you think about it, the term “playing time” is something of a misnomer. If you’re a basketball player or coach, time is nothing to play with.
Eddie Fogler, the only man voted Southeastern Conference Coach of the Year at two different schools, said that decisions about playing time must be made after careful consideration.
“Oh, it’s huge,” he said. “I think every coach is thinking, whether you have Kentucky depth or whether you have eight or nine guys, you’re always thinking about how to divide the 200 minutes.”
Of course, few programs have Kentucky’s depth. And even Kentucky seldom has depth like this season.
Kentucky coach John Calipari has said again and again how he’s wrestled with how to divvy up what’s known in basketball parlance as “minutes.” A line began forming for a game’s 200 minutes (five positions times with 40 minutes for each) ever since Willie Cauley-Stein surprised him early last April by saying he intended to return as a junior. Then came the shock of twins Andrew and Aaron Harrison also deciding to return. All joined junior Alex Poythress and sophomore Dakari Johnson as returnees.
“I went, ‘Oh my gosh, what am I going to do?’ ” Calipari said.
He became basketball’s version of the little old lady who lived in a shoe. He had so many players, he didn’t know what to do. Nine McDonald’s All-Americans. Plus Cauley-Stein, a member of the SEC’s all-defensive team last season, Plus, Dominique Hawkins, a defensive stopper in the backcourt as a freshman last NCAA Tournament. Plus Derek Willis, a player Calipari once likened to NBA All-Star Bobby Jones.
That’s a lot of pluses. ESPN analyst Fran Fraschilla sees no minuses.
“Anybody who sees very much downside on this Kentucky roster is out of their minds,” he said.
But a roster bursting at the seams challenges the coach to decide who plays and how much. The arrival of another stellar freshman class, this time four McDonald’s All-Americans, created the oh-my-gosh.
Hall of Fame sportswriter Bob Ryan saw this coming.
“It was inevitable there would be a convergence of guys who did not leave and bump into the incoming guys,” he said. “Even John [Calipari]’s wiles are going to be tested by this.
“Look, this is what John has wrought. This is the way he does business. And I’m fascinated. And I think all of us are going to be fascinated to watch and see how all of this is settled.”
— Sportswriter Bob Ryan
Calipari has opted for platoons. One five-man unit starts the game. Then another five-man unit relieves the starters. The units rotate in and out of the game at about every television timeout. Ten players each play about 20 minutes. Two other players (Hawkins and Willis) fill any gaps.
To talk to people like Fraschilla, Fogler and Ryan is to hear that a platoon system is theoretically possible.
“Divide 12 into 200,” Fogler said with the answer being 16.7 minutes per player. ” ‘OK. Let’s play.’ That ain’t happening.”
Platoons are increasingly impractical as a season moves past so-called cupcake opponents and enters fiercer competition.
“It sounds great on paper,” Fraschilla said of platoons “I think it’ll work very easily in the non-conference. My sense is the one dilemma — and it’s a minor dilemma compared to what everybody else’s problems are — about having 12 good players is you really do have to pick five down the stretch of close games. I mean, you just can’t say, OK, at the four-minute mark, we’re just going to put five more guys in. It’s not hockey.
“John, ultimately, will have to have the feel. He will have to figure out who his best five are in a crunch-time game at Florida or the NCAA Tournament.”
Fraschilla, a longtime Calipari buddy, offered a hypothetical to make his point.
“What happens if Tyler Ulis is absolutely unguardable in a game, and you’re coming down the stretch of a close game?” he said. “But, you know what, it’s Andrew Harrison’s turn to play the next five-minute stretch. I think John is going to revert to playing five guys at that particular time he thinks can make the most impact on a win.”
Calipari has given himself plenty of wiggle room for foul trouble, injury, shooter with a hot hand, best free-throw shooters, a pressing unit, going big, going small, etc, etc.
“Will it morph into something else?” he asked. “It probably will.”
Although Calipari touts the platoon system as unprecedented, it’s actually been used at UK. Women’s coach Matthew Mitchell used platoons in 2011-12. Of his 15 players, 11 averaged 11.2 or more minutes. The team won the SEC.
“It was automatic the first five were going to play the first four minutes, then the second five were going to play the next four minutes,” he said. “We were going to try to hit you with just an overwhelming wave of pressure.”
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After the first eight minutes, Mitchell continued to rotate units if his team fully controlled the game. If not, he abandoned platoons and substituted in a conventional manner.
He looks skeptically at the notion of Calipari using set platoons throughout the 2014-15 season.
“I don’t know how you’d ever script a season,” Mitchell said. “It’d be hard to do.”
Of course, scripting a season is not Calipari’s intent. Nor is it keeping players happy, at least in the immediate sense.
“What’s important for him — and it’s very sincere — is to look out for the players first,” Mitchell said. ” ‘I’m going to try to serve the players and put them in the best situation to be successful.’ And he stays true to it.”
Making NBA dreams a reality is the basis for the one-and-done system, so Calipari massages the platoons into an acceptable vehicle to the pros. He noted that Michael Jordan did not need to play 32 minutes in a 40-minute game to be Michael Jordan. (To be fair, Jordan averaged 30.8 minutes at North Carolina.) He noted the same for LeBron James (39.5 minutes per 48-minute NBA game in his career through Wednesday) and Anthony Davis (32 minutes per game at UK, 33.4 per SEC game and 34.7 per NCAA tournament game).
Calipari is on more solid ground in citing Team USA as an example of star players sacrificing minutes for the betterment of the team.
Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim, an assistant with Team USA at this year’s World Games, noted the challenge of getting players to share minutes.
“Very difficult,” he said. “And I don’t think we could do it for more than a few weeks. Too many players want to play, and they want to play a lot.”
To sell the idea of sacrificing minutes, Calipari can note that playing time on college teams isn’t that important in terms of getting to the NBA. Daniel Orton averaged 13.2 minutes in his one Kentucky season and was a first-round pick in 2010. Enes Kanter didn’t play at all and was the third overall pick in 2011.
“You get 12 as good as John gets, they all think they’re going to the NBA,” Fogler said. “He’s got to manage that, and he’ll manage that. He’s great at that stuff. He’s dealt with that for years now.
“The thing John can point to is he’s got a pretty good track record of guys going to the NBA and doing well. It seems to me if a kid goes to Kentucky and he thinks he’s a pro talent, if he listens to John Calipari and busts his butt, he’s going to be in the NBA. Quite a track record.”