John Calipari has a lot of options to put together Kentucky’s best team this season. (Vicky Graff Photo)
Knowing how much talented depth Kentucky might have this season, I asked assistant coach Orlando Antigua if a team could ever have too much talent back in September.
He laughed and quickly told me “too much talent is a lot better than not enough talent.” He’s right but balancing too much talent also can pose issues.
Remember coach John Calipari went with a platoon system during UK’s 2014-15 season when UK started 38-0 before losing in the Final Four. Calipari won’t do that this season but he’s got a lot of interesting personnel issues facing him.
The coach said he wanted to have a seven- or eight-player rotation. When I asked him if who is in that rotation might change from game to game, he said no because that would mean players were being inconsistent.
“It is a growing process every day. I’m still trying to understand and to do what’s asked of me, and it is definitely different but I’m still embracing it every day. I’m still trying to get better every day,” Kentucky guard Davion Mintz said about his role.
Remember Mintz was UK’s leading scorer and overall best player last season. This is his sixth season of college basketball and he knows he’s not guaranteed anything this season.
Freshman forward Daimion Collins played three minutes against Duke but then played 21 minutes against Robert Morris Friday and had 14 points, six rebounds, four blocks, three assists, one steal and a thunderous dunk that was the No. 1 play on ESPN SportsCenter’s top 10.
“Coach Cal just told me to trust him, and when I get my chance be ready and that’s what I did. I was ready when I had my chance,” Collins said after the Robert Morris game. “This game was a big confidence builder, just knowing I can go out there and help out and do what I have to do.”
Calipari joked he needed more minutes for players against Robert Morris — and he had three players (Jacob Toppin, Lance Ware and C.J. Fredrick) out with injuries. Kentucky announced Saturday that Fredrick would be out for the year with a hamstring injury that would require surgery this week.
However, Calipari knows balancing playing time will still be a challenge.
“I’m trying to tell the players about contentment. You’ve got to be happy with where you are, who you are, what you’re about. You still strive to get better, but I’m happy with where I am,” Calipari said.
“These guys, at times, and it’s all the clutter around them, you got to be this, you got to do that, and most of it’s based on shooting more balls and playing more minutes. I bet you not one person is in their ears saying, ‘Rebound better, defend, block shots.’”
Well, Oscar Tshiebwe — he has 42 rebounds in two games — might be saying that but not many others likely are telling UK players that.
One more complication — if that is the right word — could be January enrollee Shaedon Sharpe, an elite 6-6 wing. He says he’s content to practice and then play next season but is willing to play this year if needed. If Calipari elects to play him (and remember he was the No. 1 ranked player in the 2022 recruiting class before reclassifying) that’s one more player in the mix and less playing time for others.
“My issue, and what I said to the guys all year, is going to be one thing: When somebody has it going and you play less minutes and the clutter comes to you, how are you going to deal with it? Are you able to say, ‘He has got it going? If I get it going, I’m going to stay,’” Calipari said.
“So that’s going to be an issue, because we have got to have a rotation. You can’t play 11, 12 guys. It may be that we settle in for a game. There is the eight. We got it.”
So will freshman Bryce Hopkins, who drew a ton of preseason praise, eventually get more playing time? What about Toppin if he gets over his shoulder issue? How much will he play?
Can Dontaie Allen’s 3-point shooting offset defensive liabilities Calipari feels he has to get him in games? Will Collins take over as Tshiebwe’s primary backup or does Lance Ware’s physical play take priority?
It’s a lot of questions that Calipari will have to answer in the next month but he’s got a schedule that will allow him to tinker with the lineup
“I’ve done things in different ways to try to get people minutes, but we have guards that should play more minutes than the rest, so you can’t do platoon,” Calipari said. “We’ve got to do what we’ve got to do. Get our rotation. Figure out how we do this.”
It probably won’t be easy but the good thing is that compared to last year, Calipari has a lot of potential answers to any question and a lot of ways to maneuver with this team as he eyes the big prize in March.
“You have guys starting that can make shots, guys coming off the bench that can make shots,” Mintz said. “You always have to be aware of certain guys on the floor at all times. It is definitely different, playing at a faster pace. You have guys that can get up and catch alleys. It’s different threats every single night, so it’s fun.”