John Calipari facing tough decisions with so many roster options

John Calipari facing tough decisions with so many roster options

We’ve all been there. You’ve settled down on the couch ready for a relaxing movie night. The popcorn just finished popping and you’re lucky enough to have borrowed the password of seven different streaming accounts. Two hours later, you are still scrolling through all the options, overwhelmed to the point of stagnation, so you give up and go to bed. For Kentucky, this season is a movie night and its roster represents all the streaming services. John Calipari almost has too many good options to choose from.

Some might call it an embarrassment of riches, but that phrase is typically reserved when there is no spending limit. When it comes to college basketball playing time, you’re capped at 200 minutes per game, so Calipari must be judicious with how he spends his roster wealth.

John Calipari will have some tough decisions this season when it comes to playing time. Granted, it is a good problem to have, but a challenge nonetheless. Let’s hope analysis paralysis doesn’t grip him as it often does the rest of us when the stakes are much lower like movie night on the couch.

The accidental deep roster on purpose

Kentucky is no stranger to a roster stacked full of talent. That’s kind of John Calipari’s thing. However, most years, Cal ends up shortening his rotation to six, seven, or eight players at the absolute most.

These top players are typically a relative no-brainer, however this year, Kentucky has 11 guys who can absolutely play. It turned out that the so-called throw-in recruits, Adou Thiero and Ugonna Onyensomeant to primarily help keep practice competitive and to develop for the future, are actually solid players and could contribute immediately.

Onyenso already has seven blocks, which ties him for third-most in Kentucky history after two games. To be fair, Kentucky has been without Oscar Tshiebwebut Onyenso has been taking advantage of the minutes he might not have otherwise been granted.

Adou Thiero played 14 minutes in Kentucky’s game against Howard and showed the kind of spark, energy, and athleticism that could prove beneficial. However, he did not see the floor against Duquesne, a sign that Calipari may be already starting to chip away at his rotation.

This year’s Kentucky team isn’t unlike the 2014-15 team

Even if the Duquesne game is an indicator that Thiero may be the 11th man out, that still leaves 10 guys to battle for minutes. The last time Kentucky had this level of depth was the 2014-2015 season when Cal introduced the platoons.

Project Platoon lasted about as long as your significant other during movie night before falling asleep, and by March the rotation was down to seven with the Harrison Twins, Karl-Anthony Towns, Trey Lyles, and Willie-Cauley Stein starting, Tyler Ulis and Devin Booker coming off the bench. Marcus Lee and Dakari Johnson played a handful of minutes here and there but were not part of the core rotation.

Alex Poythress’s injury played a part in that shortened bench, but it was a far cry from the platoon system (plus Derek Willis and Dominique Hawkins as the 11th and 12th man) employed at the beginning of the year.

That 2014-15 team, whose great season ended in heartbreak, featured eight players who would spend time in the NBA (including two NBA All-Stars). This year’s squad likely has half as many future pros, if that. Yet, it is just as deep.

The Wheeler-Wallace debate

Regardless of Cal’s minute generosity seen in November, rest assured he will tighten up the rotation as the season progresses. So, which players will float to the top?

The hottest take from the fanbase is to downgrade Sahvir Wheeler in favor of Cason Wallace. That might make sense on the surface. Wallace is Kentucky’s most coveted player by NBA scouts and his 6’4″ frame towers over Wheeler’s 5’9″ stature. There is also likely still some residual frustration from Wheeler’s most recent poor March Madness performance.

So what did Sahvir Wheeler do in his first game back after Wallace started in his place? He came off the bench and recorded a double-double including a team-high 11 assists.

Wheeler is an incredible college point guard and has proven it for multiple seasons. His assist prowess is unmatched in the SEC and to dismiss that is extremely short-sighted. Having said that, Cason Wallace is too talented to sit and he is at his best with the ball in his hands. Cal is going to have to find a happy medium with the timeshare at point guard, and likely give more minutes to whoever happens to have the hot hand on any given night.

Who will be Oscar’s backup?

In the next obvious position battle, freshman Ugonna Onyenso has made an immediate impression during his brief time on campus. On top of his near record-breaking blocks after two games, he was one missed free throw away from a double-double off the bench on Friday. Even Duquesne’s coach thinks he will be a future pro.

No one is taking Oscar’s minutes when he comes back from knee surgery, but the race for his backup is clearly on. Will Onyenso usurps Lance Ware on the depth chart? Well, as much admiration Ugonna has received for his blocks, Ware actually led the team in that category with four against Duquesne.

Cal will likely need to treat his big men like NBA coaches do and insert guys based on matchups. Does the opposing team have a bruiser down low? Maybe Ware is the best option. Does the opponent drive to the basket effectively? Maybe the nod would go to Onyenso in that game to serve as a rim protector.

Ultimately, Kentucky may not simply have a solidified seven or eight-man rotation.

Kentucky will need to manage its roster like the NBA

Point guard and backup center are the most obvious position battles, but what about CJ Frederick and Antonio Reeves? Kentucky’s two sharpshooters are lethal when they share the floor, but which one will serve on the first team?

How does Chris Livingston fit into all of this and what does Cal do with Daimion Collins when he returns?

Cal has hinted at a desire to give the NBA another shot over the years, but he will have his chance, in a way, by managing his roster like they do in the pros. In the NBA, everyone is good, and while there are clearly superstars who play more than others, matchups, who happens to be hot that night, and the flow of the game often dictates who is on the floor in the final minutes.

To paraphrase Cal during one of his first Kentucky press conferences back in 2009 when he asked if John Wall would start: it doesn’t matter who starts, it matters who finishes.

Calipari will have the remote with a plethora of streaming services at his disposal this season. Let’s hope he picks the most binge-worthy lineup each night.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *