Of course, everybody has been fine with Kentucky’s platoon system so far. What’s not to like? The test run in the Bahamas in August went well (physical and mental fatigue, not resistance to five-man platoons, contributed to the one loss).
Then No. 1 Kentucky won its two preseason exhibition games by an average of 58.5 points. The season began with a no-sweat tuneup against Grand Canyon on Friday.
The real test of how well the players embrace platoons may come as soon as Tuesday when Kentucky plays No. 5 Kansas, an opponent good enough to win the game or pierce the kumbaya, which might be more or less the same thing.
“They’re all happy now,” Eddie Fogler said in the pre-season. “You know when they’re all going to start being unhappy? Some of their guys? After the first game when some of them don’t play as much as they think they should. And that’s the truth.”
Fogler, the conscience of the Southeastern Conference when he coached at Vanderbilt and South Carolina, has never been keen on public relations flimflam. Perhaps not so coincidentally, his college degree was in just-the-facts mathematics.
Fogler did not mean to question the UK players’ embrace of platoons. He was merely noting human nature.
UK Coach John Calipari has wondered aloud about the acceptance of platoons. Not by players, he’s quick to say. People outside the program that players listen to could be a problem.
In anticipation of potential pitfalls, Calipari has also noted an all-purpose scapegoat: the media.
Hall of Fame sportswriter Bob Ryan voiced doubt that all UK players will be happy all season.
“It’s hard to imagine they’re all going to be selfless and completely team-oriented and going along with the program for the sake of the whole,” he said. “And won’t be listening to their brother or their uncle or their father or advisor or their next-door neighbor. Whoever it is and not reacting to that. It’s going to be hard.”
But it’s not impossible. Questions about UK’s platoons seemed to amuse Auburn Coach Bruce Pearl at the SEC Media Days.
“I played 10 guys 10-plus minutes my whole career,” he said. “The platoon idea may be new at Kentucky. It’s been what I’ve been doing for 20 years as a head coach.”
A check of the numbers found Pearl to be only mildly exaggerating. In his six seasons as Tennessee coach, 10 or more players averaged double-digit minutes in four seasons. Twelve Vols averaged between 10.9 and 27.7 minutes in the 2009-10 season.
“The sum of the parts is greater than anything else,” Pearl said of using many players. “When you utilize all those parts, it can be overwhelming.”
After Kentucky beat Georgetown College last weekend, Aaron Harrison acknowledged being initially puzzled by the idea of platoons.
“Of course, at the beginning, you’re questioning, just the new type of play,” he said. “You just wonder about it. Now, that we’re starting to settle into it, it’s worked so far.”
Calipari has cited Team USA as an example of standout players sacrificing minutes for the good of the team. No doubt, it’s a good example.
But the truth of which Fogler spoke remains.
Syracuse Coach Jim Boeheim, an assistant on several of Mike Krzyzewski’s Team USA staffs, noted the limited shelf life of selflessness, even with U-S-A across the jersey. He noted the unavoidable difficulty all coaches have dealing with playing time issues.
“That’s a problem we always have,” he said. “It’s always been a problem. It always will be a problem.”
Sportswriter Bud Withers previewed the Gonzaga team in the Seattle Times last week. The Zags sounded a lot like Kentucky West: the presumption of abundant talent and the assurances of friction-free camaraderie.
See if you think there’s a familiar feel to these excerpts from Withers’ story in The Seattle Times:
The Zags have a string of 16 NCAA Tournament appearances, but the 2014-15 roster is evidence enough that just making it 17 isn’t going to be enough for those around the program.
“We want to make it to the Final Four,” said 6-foot-10 forward Kyle Wiltjer, late of Kentucky. “That has to be our mindset.”
Mark Few has taken pains to emphasize team-building exercises, like a weekend retreat to nearby Hayden Lake.
Star wing Byron Wesley noted, “At every position, we’re loaded.”
But Wesley also said that the Zags are inclined to work together in a common cause.
“It’s a really, really likable group of guys,” he says. “(But) we knew we had to put an emphasis on team-building, to come together maybe more.”
Withers questioned whether a team can have too many players when he wrote, “This latest Gonzaga edition might be a lab experiment in whether a stacked roster means an inverse relationship with cohesiveness.”
To which, Wiltjer said, “Honestly, I don’t ever see that being an issue because everyone is so unselfish. We have such high-character guys. Everyone wants to win at the end of the day.”