By KEITH PEEL, Contributing Writer
What’s should be most watched and talked about team statistic to UK Basketball Fans each season? Especially ones that want to see the team win championship No. 9?
Is it an offensive statistic like points scored per game? Turnovers? Assists? Offensive rebounds per game? Maybe it’s three point shooting percentage. Or maybe it’s a defensive statistic like points given up per game or defensive rebounds per game. Could it be steals per game?
I would venture to say that in looking seriously at the successful UK Basketball teams of the past – success being defined as reaching the Final Four or better – it is none of those. Here’s why.
For successful UK teams of the past during the John Calipari era one statistic jumped out. The 2010 team didn’t have it. They did have five first round NBA draft picks including No. 1 John Wall. They finished the season at 35-3 but only made it to the Elite Eight.
The 2013 Wildcats didn’t have it either and they finished the season with an NIT appearance and loss to Robert Morris. The 2016 Wildcats won 27 games, had two first round draft picks but only made the round of 32 in the NCAA Tournament.
The 2017 team finished the season with a 32-6 record and had future NBA stars De’Aaron Fox, Malik Monk and Bam Adebayo but only made it to the Elite Eight in the tournament.
So how is it that teams like the 2011 Final Four team led by first round NBA draft pick Brandon Knight along with Josh Harrelson and DeAndre Liggins and the 2014 Runner Up team headlined by first round picks Julius Randle and James Young along with the Harrison Brothers and Willie Cauley-Stein were able to make it that far in the NCAA tournament while a team like the John Wall team that was loaded with talented future NBA stars could not?
Every UK Basketball team during the John Calipari era – except the 2015 Karl Anthony-Towns super team – that has advanced to at least the Final Four has had at least this one common factor.
They all played a short rotation of players. All the teams that have advanced to the Final Four or better – except 2015 – had a six or seven man rotation that played each player 32 minutes or more per game. The other players on those teams played less than ten minutes per game. In contrast teams like the John Wall team or the De’Aaron Fox team played an eight or nine man rotation and most players played only in the mid-twenty minutes per game timeframe.
How can that be? How could playing less players more minutes during the season lead to teams performing well in the NCAA Tournament? Maybe they develop better chemistry with each other. Maybe they understand their roles better and know what is expected of them every game.
With such a short rotation they can’t take any games off or even any plays off during the game. Maybe the stamina they build up during the season helps them hang in there when other teams wear down during the weekend games in the NCAA Tournament. Or maybe it means that the very best players are on the floor almost 90% of the time.
Any or all of those could be the reason but it is very clear after nine years the trend is there. Except for the 2015 team that played a ten man platoon system every other successful team has only played a six or seven man rotation.
Since Coach Calipari is currently talking about the possibility of having to use the platoon system again if Reid Travis transfers to UK from Stanford and if Ashton Hagans reclassifies and enrolls at UK in August- as he has indicated – it is unlikely that UK will be playing a six or seven man rotation in 2018. Based on “the trend” that doesn’t bode well for another banner in the rafters from the 2018-2019 team.
But at the end of the day trends are just that – trends. They are not carved in stone. They can always change but it makes a person wonder about recruiting a multitude of great players if you really only need six or seven to make it to the Final Four and potentially win the National Championship.
So the next time you hear a recruiting analyst say UK is in line to sign or have on the roster eight or ten great players for the upcoming season maybe it’s not something to get excited about – if you are interested in hanging a ninth banner from the rafters of Rupp Arena. And who isn’t?