Will Kentucky run the table?
By PATRICK LEARY
College Contributor Network
On Saturday afternoon, with 12:21 remaining in the first half of UCLA's game against No. 1 Kentucky, highly touted Bruins' freshman Kevon Looney made a jump shot.
In most situations, that would be a fairly mundane occurrence. But against Kentucky, it marked UCLA's first points of the game, and made the score 24-2.
Ridiculous scores like that, and convincing final tallies like the 83-44 whooping the Wildcats laid on a decent UCLA squad, have people wondering whether the latest iteration of John Calipari's McDonald's All-American machine will lose a game this season. With just No. 4 Louisville to play before the Wildcats' SEC slate, a conference that lacks any other ranked teams, that argument is gaining traction.
Kentucky, more than any other team in recent college basketball memory, benefits from its borderline-unfair roster depth. Calipari's comfort in playing 10 or 11 deep allows him to employ a platoon system for substitutions. Much like hockey line changes, Calipari will send a group of five new players onto the court at the same time when he feels his current quintet needs a rest. Even when second-platoon member Alex Poythress, perhaps Kentucky's most experienced player, tore his ACL in practice a few weeks ago, Calipari hasn't wavered.
On Saturday, he stuck to that strategy almost exclusively. He began the game with the most formidable starting lineup in college basketball today: the Harrison twins, Aaron and Andrew, in the backcourt, with Trey Lyles, Karl-Anthony Towns and Willie Cauley-Stein across the front line. That lineup carries incredible balance, not just position-wise, but in experience as well.
Sure, it includes two guards that ball-handle and shoot extremely well, a dominating low-post offensive force and maybe the best rim protector in college hoops. It also includes an experienced junior, two championship-tested sophomores and a pair of 2014 McDonalds All-Americans.
Then, after about four minutes, Calipari flipped the switch and went to the second line, an intimidating group in its own right. That group includes a one-two punch in the backcourt of freshmen Tyler Ulis and Devin Booker, 2013-14 starting center Dakari Johnson, sophomore big man Marcus Lee, and 6-foot-9 shooter Derek Willis (at points it also featured Dominque Hawkins).
These five would make a solid starting lineup for any team, and there's a reason the Wildcats saw very little drop off following the switch. Booker anchored the second platoon against UCLA, scoring 19 points and making five three-pointers in just 16 minutes.
The effective system has resulted in no player scoring more than 11 points per game, but seven scoring between seven and 11.
That balance, along with the collective athleticism of every player on the platoons, allows for eight-minute stretches where the Wildcats can launch 24-0 runs against NCAA Tournament-caliber opposition. Kentucky is deeper, longer and faster than any team in college hoops, and can employ a full-court press that knocks the will out of the other team.
So, can Kentucky run the table? They absolutely can, considering they won't face any complete teams in conference play this season. The Dec. 27 tilt against Louisville might be tricky, but the Wildcats' depth and pressure should be enough to overwhelm Montrezl Harrell and the rest of the Cardinals squad. Conference road games like at Alabama or at Florida might trouble the 'Cats.
The key for Kentucky is focus. Two wins that jump out on its 12-0 slate are ones against Buffalo and Columbia. In both games, the Wildcats started sluggishly and trailed at halftime. That led to second-half scrambles where victories were achieved rather comfortably. Still, for Kentucky's smallest win in a schedule that includes Kansas, Texas and North Carolina to be against an Ivy League doormat reveals perhaps its most glaring weakness: the players don't play as hard in non-spotlight games.
That said, if Calipari gets his guys up for every game, treating each time on the court like a championship opportunity, Kentucky could be well on its way to the first undefeated season in college basketball since Bob Knight's heyday at Indiana.
Patrick Leary is a senior at Marquette University. He thinks Felix Hernandez is the best pitcher on God's green earth. Follow him on Twitter: @patrickkleary