In an honest moment, UCLA coach Steve Alford might roll his eyes at Kentucky’s current dilemma heading into Saturday’s CBS Sports Classic in Chicago.
The Wildcats lost junior forward Alex Poythress for the remainder of the season a week ago to a torn ACL. The injury means Kentucky coach John Calipari must either find a 10th man to play in his unconventional platoon system or simply deal with a nine-man rotation filled with McDonald’s All-Americans and NBA prospects.
Alford only wishes he could sympathize with that problem.
Kentucky’s opponent Saturday has a five-man rotation and little else. In UCLA’s last game, an 87-74 loss to Gonzaga, Alford played four of his starters for at least 35 minutes. The fifth starter played 25 minutes, and only one other player logged more than six minutes.
Meanwhile, Kentucky could still conceivably change its entire lineup wholesale. Since this is Kentucky, the No. 1 team in the country, the Wildcats’ substitution patterns in the face of the Poythress injury are noteworthy.
“We'll platoon nine, and we're going to have time to see if (sophomore forward) Derek Willis or (sophomore guard) Dom Hawkins deserve to be in the rotation of 10,” Calipari said. “I'm not going to take minutes away from any player just to platoon. That's not the idea. We were platooning for one reason — to try to take care of 10 players.”
Kentucky vs. UCLA
Site: United Center, Chicago
Time: Saturday, 3:30 p.m. ET
David Fox: Kentucky 74-58
Braden Gall: Kentucky 83-68
Mitch Light: Kentucky 78-54
Jake Rose: Kentucky 82-64
The Poythress injury is the first major test of Calipari’s unorthodox platoon system in which he has white and blue squads for liberal and sometime wholesale substitutions.
While the loss of a starter — and an experienced and versatile defender at that — Calipari has to find a way to fill the minutes. Certainly, he has the bodies to do it, but he’ll have to juggle the egos of talented players along the way.
The truth is, the true platoon system has faded a bit in recent games. In a 58-38 win over Providence on Nov. 30, Kentucky made eight five-man substitutions, including the first four substitutions of the game.
That may have been the end of Kentucky's platoon system.
In the following four games, Calipari has subbed all five on the court only six times. That said, the first substitutions against Texas, Eastern Kentucky and Columbia was a five-man change.
Against North Carolina, Kentucky’s first game without Poythress, the Wildcats subbed four at the first timeout and followed more conventional substitution patterns for the remainder of the game. Calipari subbed four seven times against the Tar Heels and never subbed an entire lineup.
The Poythress injury is a curve ball, but the kind of change that was bound to happen to Kentucky’s best-laid plans. An injury, a player or two not keeping up with the pack or anything else could have turned a 10-man platoon into a more conventional, yet still deep, rotation.
“We did talk in terms of, 'Hey, if we get to the point where eight of those guys or seven have separated from the rest, it'll be pretty cut-and-dried that it's done on the court and it's proven on the court and those guys will play.'” Calipari said. “So I'm not married to anything.”