Why an obscure Division III team can offer a blueprint to Kentucky

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Why an obscure Division III team can offer a blueprint to Kentucky
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One flies swanky charter jets to and from every road game. The other is lucky to get a row to himself on the team bus.

One recruits mostly McDonald's All-Americans. The other recruits mostly McDonald's customers.

Kentucky's John Calipari and John Carroll University's Mike Moran don't appear to have much in common except for one thing: They are two of the only coaches daring enough to run one of basketball's most unconventional systems this season.

If you want to see the blueprint for the ballyhooed platoon system Calipari has designed to bring out the best in his deepest team, you have to visit the tiny Jesuit school in the Cleveland suburbs where Moran coaches. Moran has built a reputation for accelerating the pace with constant full-court pressure and keeping players fresh with frequent hockey-style five-at-a-time substitutions, a combination that has helped John Carroll amass 10 league titles, nine 20-win seasons and one Division III Final Four in his 22-year tenure.  

"It's a tool we use to keep as many players happy as possible and to take advantage of the fatigue factor," Moran said. "I've had years where I've said, 'If I see one guy not sprint, the whole unit is coming out.' If a kid says he's not tired when he leaves the game, I tell him, 'The problem is you're not playing hard enough.'"

Oddly enough, the inspiration for Moran combining basketball and hockey stems from his childhood love of football. The former defensive end from Xavier University borrowed the principles of the platoon system from the undefeated 1958 LSU football team, which featured an 11-man first unit that played both ways, 11 offensive backups known as the "Go team" and 11 defensive backups known as the "Chinese Bandits."

Thanks to their relentless work ethic and unwavering spirit, the "Chinese Bandits" earned more than a quarter of the snaps that season and became the folk heroes of LSU's unexpected ascension. Moran was in grade school in Cleveland at the time, but the camaraderie and effort of the Chinese Bandits stuck with him, as did the sight of a racially insensitive LIFE Magazine cover celebrating their achievements.

Those memories led Moran to dabble with five-man substitutions in his early coaching days at St. Joseph's High School in Cleveland and again at John Carroll. Nonetheless, it wasn't until midway through his tenure at John Carroll that he recognized the talent gap between his starters and 10th man was insignificant and decided to adopt the platoon system full time.

 "We had a lot of guys who were at the same skill level," said Jason Pecjak, a senior on that 2002-03 John Carroll team. "I had played a lot the previous couple years, so it was a tough adjustment for me at first. But most of us came to John Carroll to play for Coach Moran and we had a lot of faith in him. We also had a big early win that season that gave us confidence."

Assessing how best to implement the platoon system was a process of trial and error for Moran. He eventually settled on pressing from start to finish and alternating two platoons every few possessions, never substituting less than five players unless foul trouble or injuries demanded it. Often Moran goes to the five guys performing the best in the last six or seven minutes of a close game, but seldom do any John Carroll players log more than 24 or 25 minutes per night.

Though Moran has lost an occasional recruit to schools who promise more playing time than he can offer, the John Carroll coach insists the advantages of the platoon system outweigh the weaknesses. Practices between the two five-man units are always ultra-competitive. Opponents have to game plan for an atypical system and either expand their rotation or risk fatigue. And team chemistry is seldom an issue because so many players are logging significant minutes.

"With a regular system, you have five kids that love you, five that will put up with you and five that hate you, win or lose, because they're not playing," Moran said. "With this system, you always have more people in your corner."

Whether a platoon system will also be a good fit at Kentucky is difficult to assess simply because so few Division I programs have ever tried anything like it.

One of the exceptions is Northwestern State coach Mike McConathy, who demands that his team plays at full-throttle speed and substitutes in five-man waves at the media timeouts for stretches of most games. Former Duquesne coach Ron Everhart experimented with a similar style throughout parts of his tenure before he was fired in 2012.

At the high-major level, line-change-style substitutions are a rarity unless a coach is dissatisfied with the five on the floor and wants to send a message by inserting an entirely new unit. Ex-North Carolina coach Dean Smith used some principles of the platoon system with his infamous "Blue team," the group of reserves he sometimes inserted en masse for a minute or two in the first half to bring energy and give his starters a blow. Steve Lavin also would substitute in five-man blocks on occasion when he had the depth to do so at UCLA, even adopting that approach from start to finish during an opening-round NCAA tournament victory over Ole Miss in 2002.

"We were all jelling at the end of the season that year when Lavin was doing that," said Ryan Walcott, a backup point guard on that UCLA team. "You definitely have to have all the egos in check and your leaders have to buy into it. If you're winning, everyone's happy. If you're losing, then it's easy to point fingers."

Calipari never planned to experiment with expanding his rotation until last spring when four players he expected to leave for the NBA opted to return to Kentucky and another he suspected might depart followed suit. The return of Willie Cauley-Stein, Alex Poythress, Dakari Johnson and the Harrison twins ensured the Wildcats would boast a record-tying nine former McDonald's All-Americans, 10 NBA prospects and 12 legitimate high-major talents, yet it also ensured the players Calipari pegged to replace the returning quintet would instead become their teammates.

Too many players and too few minutes can sometimes create chemistry issues, but Calipari has gotten creative in his quest to prevent playing time complaints from threatening Kentucky's season. He introduced the idea of the platoon system before the Wildcats left for a tour of the Bahamas in August. He also hired an analytics specialist whose job description includes keeping players happy by showing them — and NBA scouts — how their stats would look were they playing 30-32 minutes per game.

"If I was worried just about me, we'd play seven guys," Calipari told reporters at Kentucky's media day earlier this month. "What I'm doing is what's right for these kids. Will it change? Will it morph into something else? Probably will. But right now all I know is I'm trying to make sure that I'm taking care of every one of these kids. That they're eating first. This is the best solution that I could come up with, and I racked my brain. How do I do this and make sure none of those kids are left behind?"

Though Kentucky will undoubtedly enjoy many of the benefits John Carroll gets from platooning, there are several challenges the Wildcats will likely face while playing the system.

Since six of Kentucky's top 10 players are either forwards or centers and there is no prototypical small forward on the roster, both platoon units will feature a wing who is more comfortable in the paint than on the perimeter. On one unit it will be 6-foot-10 freshman Trey Lyles, a skilled big man ill-suited to handling the ball or defending the perimeter. On the other unit it will be 6-foot-7 junior Alex Poythress, a combo forward whose wayward jump shot and ferocious offensive rebounding make him better suited to the power forward position.

Another issue is Kentucky will probably have to press consistently and push tempo to maximize the effectiveness of the platoon system. Is that really the proper approach for a team that has three 7-footers in its rotation, is among the toughest to score against when its defense is set and struggles already to get back in transition defense?

Maybe the biggest problem is that by nature the platoon system makes it difficult for the best players on a team to make the same impact they would in a less restrictive system. If Aaron Harrison builds on his momentum from last March, Karl Towns plays to his NBA lottery potential or Cauley-Stein scores consistently and maintains his usual defensive excellence, how is Calipari going to justify giving them only 20-25 minutes per game?

Many have suggested those issues may lead Calipari to scrap the platoon system by Christmas, but ESPN analyst Jay Bilas isn't so certain it will be such a short-term experiment. Bilas believes frenetic pace and full-court pressure are both advantages for Kentucky because more possessions per game typically minimizes the risk of an upset for the team with superior talent.  

Even if Calipari returns to a traditional rotation by the start of SEC play, Bilas believes Kentucky has already benefited from its coach vowing to start the season with an unconventional system.

"The beauty of what Cal's doing here is all the talk is his strategy instead of the personnel," Bilas said. "It takes the attention off of the players. You're not talking about Tyler Ulis being a better point guard than Andrew Harrison or Karl Towns should be playing more than Cauley-Stein or Cauley-Stein should be playing more than this guy. None of the pressure is on the players now. It's about the system and it's all on Cal. I think that's a really smart way to go about this."

Yes, as usual, all eyes are on Calipari — including those of a Division III coach with little in common with the Kentucky coach besides a winning track record and the confidence to try something new.

Moran has never met Calipari, but the John Carroll coach will be rooting for the Wildcats this season for as long as they stick with the platoon system. He's eager to see whether the unorthodox style of play that has fueled his team's success will be effective at college basketball's highest level.

"I'm definitely interested to see how they do," Moran said. "Will they substitute after a certain number of possessions or will it be based on fatigue factor or an amount of time? The system has been highly successful for us, and I'm anxious to see how it works for them."

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Jeff Eisenberg is the editor of The Dagger on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at daggerblog@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter!