Nothing Blue Can Stay: The Platoons of Kentucky Men’s Basketball

How long can the platoons last?

Each year it is with some reluctance that I transfer my affections from the University of Kentucky football team to its men’s basketball team. Their seasons’ overlap in November is awkward for me, a struggle to adjust from the wide martial arc of football to the dogfights of basketball. This tempo change is aggravated, in the John Calipari era, by the prospect of an entirely new roster of starters each year, fab freshman whose ever subdividing stages of recruitment—unofficial and official visits, verbal commitments, Letters of Intent—I do not happen to follow. Except for Nerlens Noel, who gave proof of his outsized personality and heart when he announced his choice on live TV by swiveling around in his chair to display the UK logo shaved into his nape.

Simply put, it’s hard caring about a brand new team every year. Longtime fans are accustomed to watching players develop over three, four, sometimes five years. I didn’t set foot in this state until my thirties, and without any  birthright to the Big Blue Nation, my enthusiasm relies on an interest in the players, their strengths and weaknesses, histories, personalities, and how they compete. In UK basketball, with so few returning starters each year, I was becoming jaded with the one-and-done business, despite Calipari’s laudable “players first” philosophy, which I completely embrace in theory. In 2011–12 I revolted, vowing not to tune in until conference play, and not really watching until February, thereby missing the early-to-mid-season progress of a phenomenal team and the NBA’s brightest young light, Anthony Davis. Lesson learned.

So, after the incredible tournament run of the 2013–14 team and its loss in the national championship, I rejoiced along with the rest of BBN when multiple starters announced their intentions to return. We knew another amazing freshman class was on its way to town, and we wondered, who would start? We trusted Coach Cal to work out the details, and he did, inverting Donald Rumsfeld and going to war with the army he had, which was twice as good as the army he may have wished to have. Calipari invented the system, named the system, and suddenly, the fairly urgent problem of too many star players was transformed into an endlessly fascinating new array of tactics and tempos for everyone involved. With the platoon system, we are watching something entirely new: no division 1 team has ever sustained it, because they haven’t needed to, because it’s a new problem, a now inevitable-seeming outcome of Calipari’s recruiting genius.

But Coach Cal isn’t just a recruiting guy, a marketing guy, a carnival barker as one sporstwriter dubbed him: he can also coach. Pre-season, everyone smelled blood, eager to see a clash of personalities as this plethora of star newcomers and veterans would be required to set aside their entirely reasonable expectations for games with 30–35 minutes of playing time and the resulting big statistics. Instead, they’d get 20 minutes and smaller stats through which to pursue their NBA dreams. Yet, these have become in every way salubrious platoons—for the players, the fans, the media, and the sport itself.

Ample make this team.

Make this team with awe.

In it wait till March Madness break

Excellent and Fair

Be its passes straight

Be its foul shots round

Let no rivals’ yellow noise

Interrupt this ground.

(after Emily Dickinson)

The platoon system solves several basketball problems. First, it’s regrettable that such a fun game to play and watch has the smallest roster of any team sport, only 5, versus football’s 11, soccer’s 11, lacrosse’s 10, baseball’s 9, ice hockey’s 6. That basketball is the smallest-roster team sport is a recipe for heartbreak beginning in middle school, in this town where basketball is a religion and so many youth are highly skilled at the game and expect to make their school team. “He’s one of the toughest kids in the school, but when anyone talks about the try-out, he starts tearing up,” reported my 6th grader in illustration of the widespread agony around try-out time for those who didn’t make the team.

Basketball is also the sport most vulnerable to selfish playing styles, such as ball-hogging and offensive showboating. Yet it seems that the founding articles of Calipari’s platoon system are unselfish play and attention to defense. We must credit his leadership for building a team of 10 starters who are off the charts in numbers of assists and blocked shots and opponents’ low shooting percentages. “The best defensive team in the modern era of college basketball” is what the Eastern Kentucky coach declared, having lost 82–49.

Platoons change the game, for players, opponents, and even fans. With so many games in a season, there is the temptation for busy fans to tune in only after halftime. Doing so this year would mean missing the exquisite drama of the Blue Platoon, who start the game, warming up the opponent for 4 minutes, probably with some blocked shots and alley-oops, until around 16:00 when Blue exits en masse to be replaced by the White Platoon, who also block shots and alley-oop, and so forth throughout the game in roughly 4-minute increments. Wonder which team gets tired first?

The White Platoon, which starts the second half, has just one starter from last year, Dakari Johnson, plus three freshman, Tyler Ulis, Trey Lyles and Devin Booker, and last year’s bench warmer Marcus Lee. Lee had one break-out half in the tournament last year, when he scored 10 crucial points vs. Michigan, securing him a spot in BBN’s hearts forever. How terrible it would have been, without this platoon system, to see Marcus Lee only warming that bench again this year! Thank you, Coach Cal, for finding a way to consistently play Marcus Lee. And Dakari Johnson, who stepped into a starting role after Willie Cauley-Stein’s injury last year, has accomplished very good things already, but he would likely be the 6th man again, behind Cauley-Stein and Towns, were it not for these salubrious platoons.

The Blue Platoon is returning starters Andrew Harrison, Aaron Harrison, Willie Cauley Stein, Alex Poythress, and the extraordinarily talented, well-spoken, and huge freshman Karl-Anthony Towns, whose name accurately conveys the grandeur of his person and prospects. Now all those amazing buzzer-beaters by Aaron Harrison, the reassuring game management and dribble-drives of Andrew Harrison, the nimble eccentricity of Cauley-Stein, the periodic explosiveness of Poythress: their remembered feats make fond penumbras around the new season.

Much has been written about Alex Poythress and his season-ending ACL tear on December 11. He was a team favorite, a fan favorite, and a coaches’ favorite for his achievements and character on and off the court. There is even a Twitter tribute account worth visiting, @APTheTypeOfDude, affectionately mocking his straight-arrow personality, in which every tweet begins the same, e.g., “Poythress the type of dude to use the clear nights we’ve had lately as a chance to finally test out his new telescope.” Poignantly, its tweet on December 12 was, “Poythress the type of dude to come back from his injury better than ever, whether it’s with UK or the NBA. He’ll be back.”

I asked my friend Whitney if she ever mentally assembles her favorite players into a hypothetical starting 5, say the best players from each platoon. “No,” she said, “because the platoons are so well balanced.” It’s true: scoring and other stats across both platoons bear this out, and that’s no coincidence. Balance is fundamental to sustaining the platoon system. Otherwise, if one platoon significantly outperformed the other, it would be untenable to continue giving equal minutes to both platoons. Time will tell if the balance endures, and certainly Poythress’s vacancy is a challenge to the system. “I’m on a mission to make this work for each of these kids,” said Calipari pre-season, and if the firehose of talent is to continue gushing our way with each new recruiting class, it has to. The platoons have got to be sustainable.

Meanwhile, fans are in a state of ecstasy, not only because we’re 12–0, but because we have twice as many players to love. Coach Cal didn’t invent platoons to enhance the fan experience, but he surely knew that Big Blue Nation and its attendant media could easily absorb a double helping of greatness.

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