Kentucky coach John Calipari wants you to know that his style of coaching is “not Communism,” which should be comforting to Bill Self, who has always seemed like a markets type of guy.
In all seriousness, Calipari has offered the “communism” line a few different times during the preseason, a well-crafted comeback to those scoffing at his new two-platoon system. Consider: Calipari has a record nine McDonald’s All-Americans on his team this year, a number that doesn’t include former Olathe Northwest standout Willie Cauley-Stein, a projected first-round pick.
So how do you find playing time for all that talent? Calipari has devised a system of two rotating five-man lineups, and if this sounds like the substitution pattern of a third-grade coach trying to even out the minutes as much as possible, you wouldn’t be far off.
Except Calipari wants to clear about one thing: This isn’t Basketball Communism. If he finds five, six, or seven players who are playing better than the others, then they will play more minutes.
But as No. 5 Kansas prepares to face No. 1 Kentucky on Tuesday (8 p.m. on ESPN) in the latest chapter of the Champions Classic, the platoon-styled gambit will likely find itself under the microscope. Just how strictly will Calipari adhere to the tenets of equal playing time for all 10 players? After two games, Kentucky has 10 players playing at least 16 minutes per game — and nobody playing more than Cauley-Stein’s 24.5 minutes per game. As a result, the Wildcats have just one player averaging double figures — freshman forward Trey Lyles, who comes off the bench.
If Kentucky is truly balanced — meaning there is not much difference between their top five players and the next five — the platoon system could have tangible benefits. The depth could wear opponents down late in games; potential chemistry issues could be sorted out.
But then there are nights like Tuesday, when Kentucky will face another top-five team with its own future pros. The Wildcats will surely be working together for the common good. But will Calipari’s version of equality survive?
As we wait for the tip of Kansas-Kentucky on Tuesday night, here are three other story lines to watch:
▪ 1 Can Kansas keep Kentucky off the glass? Last season, the Wildcats were a dominating group on the offensive boards. Their offensive rebounding percentage (41.9) ranked second in the country, and while they can score in the half-court, their best offensive play, as Kansas coach Bill Self said this week, might just be throwing the ball at the basket and attacking the offensive glass.
Last year, in fact, this happened a lot. The Wildcats ranked 215th in three-point shooting. That led to a lot of bricks, and a lot of opportunities for offensive rebounds.
It should be mentioned that Kentucky’s best offensive rebounder from last season (Julius Randle) left early for the NBA. But Kentucky still has a frontcourt that includes 7-foot junior Willie Cauley-Stein, 7-foot sophomore, Dakari Johnson and 6-foot-11 Karl-Anthony Towns. They also have two guards — Andrew and Aaron Harrison — who measure 6 feet 6. How will Kansas combat all the length?
▪ 2. Can Kansas’ quickness give Kentucky problems? For all the discussion of size and NBA prospects, the Jayhawks have something Kentucky does not have: A couple of combo guards with quickness, solid ballhandling skills and decent shooting ability.
Sophomore Frank Mason and freshman Devonte’ Graham will not be on draft boards anytime soon, but they could give Kentucky’s guards — especially the bigger Harrison twins — some fits with their quickness. In fact, if Mason and Graham are successful early, don’t be surprised to see Kentucky freshman point guard Tyler Ulis on the floor more often.
In the paint, Kansas will counter Kentucky’s length with two smallish power forwards who can run (Jamari Traylor and Perry Ellis), and Bill Self would be wise to ratchet up the tempo against Kentucky. That’s a heavy burden on Kansas’ guards.
After last season’s Champions Classic win over Duke, Andrew Wiggins curtailed most of the headlines. But Mason, then just a freshman in his second college game, was a quiet star. He finished with 15 points in 23 minutes, hitting 11 of 12 from the free-throw line. Can Mason duplicate the performance this season?
▪ 3. Will Svi Mykhailiuk introduce himself? If you look at the box score from Kansas’ season-opening victory over UC Santa Barbara, you will see that Mykhailiuk had four points in 16 minutes. He had three rebounds and three assists. He missed his only two three-point attempts. It was a decent performance, but nothing too spectacular.
But if you watched Friday’s game, you will come to understand why Mykhailiuk has been Kansas’ best player in practice at times — at least, according to Self. Mykhailiuk’s talent is obvious. He is close to 6 feet 7 (Kansas lists him at 6-8, but that seems a little generous). His shooting stroke is pure. And he can handle it well enough to cross over a defender from Santa Barbara and dump off a perfect assist to Cliff Alexander.
If you listen to Self, though, you’ll hear other things. Self believes Mykhailiuk is one of Kansas’ best positional defenders, meaning he’s often in the right spot while guarding off the ball. He understands rotations. He keeps Kansas in good rebounding position. Mykhailiuk is only 17, but he’s spent many years playing against older, professional players in the Ukraine.
“He’s 17, but he looks 14,” Self said last week. “But I do think he’s beyond his years for a 17-year-old, without question. Just like Joel (Embiid) was beyond his years for an 18, 19-year-old. Svi’s played all his whole life; Joel hadn’t, obviously. But sometimes it’s easier for those big guys to come faster than it is in guard, and Joel had a naturally gifted body and length, and playing soccer helped his feet so much. Svi’s going to be a special player.”
On Tuesday night, the moment could be a little big for Mykhailiuk. Last April, when many of Kentucky’s core was in the NCAA title game, Mykhailiuk was a mostly unknown 16-year-old from Ukraine. But for now, it appears he could be ready to contribute faster than many expected.