LEXINGTON, Ky. — Whether top-ranked Kentucky could beat the NBA’s winless Philadelphia 76ers isn’t the point for a squad looking strong enough to beat everybody else in college basketball.
Early on, it doesn’t seem like it’s even close.
The Wildcats resemble the NCAA’s version of Team USA with two five-man lineups of NBA-caliber talent.
Kentucky has nine players at least 6-foot-6 and each Wildcat has shown the ability to carry the load for 40 minutes if needed.
They were so dominant in throttling No. 5 Kansas 72-40 earlier in the week that Phoenix Suns guard Eric Bledsoe, a former Wildcat, declared that his alma mater could beat the hapless 76ers in a seven-game series.
Whether Kentucky could beat the 76ers has made for a nice debate, but Kansas coach Bill Self believes one thing is certain: The Wildcats have players capable of playing in the NBA.
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“There’s a chance you may have 10 guys that play in the league all on their platoon deal,” said the coach, whose Jayhawks were held to 20 percent shooting and 12 second-half points by Kentucky.
Creating that professional opportunity is something Kentucky coach John Calipari certainly will have to do to keep all of his talented players happy. Used to years of coaching “one-and-done” players, the oddity of having six returnees from last NCAA tournament’s runner-up squad joined by four standout freshmen has Calipari’s cup overflowing.
To divvy up playing time and maximize the talent, Calipari decided a platoon system would be the best way to get the most of out a roster expected to win the school’s ninth national championship.
Former Kentucky coach Joe B. Hall said players are buying in — surrendering individual goals and minutes to win.
“They really take a lot of pride in teamwork and try to beat each other up in practice,” Hall said “In fact, they play tougher defense in practice than they do in games, and it’s something to watch.”
The system has led to balanced scoring.
Two of the “reinforcements” — Calipari doesn’t call them substitutes — Dakari Johnson and Trey Lyles lead Kentucky in scoring at 10 points per game coming off the bench. The next eight players’ scoring averages are separated by no more than a point each.
And playing time hasn’t been an issue. The Wildcats’ 10 regulars are averaging between 16 and 23 minutes, and nobody is complaining about fatigue or minutes.
How long the harmony lasts remains to be seen, but winning is a good silencer and players insist their start is the result of everybody being on the same page — albeit on two squads.
“It just means you have to sacrifice, really,” said sophomore starting point guard Andrew Harrison, who’s averaging 9.7 points per game. “When you win and you’re playing well, everybody’s going to be successful. That’s really all that matters.”
Calipari also has convinced players the platoon system won’t prevent them from reaching their individual goals of possibly playing in the NBA.
“Coach made a good point to where you can be evaluated in minutes just like you can in 35 minutes,” Harrison said.
Kentucky’s play during an August exhibition tour in the Bahamas showed the platoon systems’ promising potential, even with 7-foot junior Willie Cauley-Stein and 6-10 Lyles sidelined by injuries. Both are healthy now and the Wildcats haven’t missed a beat through three games with an average victory margin of 30.3 points.
However, Sunday’s sluggish start against Buffalo showed the system is still a work in progress — the Bulls had the Wildcats out of sync and trailing by five at halftime. But after halftime, the second platoon opened with a 9-0 run that got the Wildcats back in rhythm, and there were no questions about chemistry against Kansas two nights ago.
Friday night’s matchup against Boston (1-1) begins a stretch of three games in five days for Kentucky. After Boston, the Wildcats play Montana State on Sunday and Tuesday against UT-Arlington.
Kentucky should beat these teams handily if players stay focused, and assistant coach John Robic said Thursday the goal is getting the Wildcats to build on the things that earned their signature win — one that didn’t surprise sophomore guard Aaron Harrison.
“We’re all in great condition and put in a lot of work this summer,” Harrison said. “It all helps us because we can wear a team down and there’s a lot of guys coming at you, so it’s hard to handle.”