Depth proves blessing and challenge for Calipari

By David Schuh | Men’s basketball columnist
dschuh@kykernel.com

On Sunday, UK head coach John Calipari did something he’s never done before — he started five freshmen in a game for the first time in a major college program since the University of Michigan in 1991.

That Michigan team 22 years ago has served as the benchmark for all recruiting classes in college basketball. The Wolverines’ 1991 class, led by four McDonald’s All-Americans, burst onto the scene and changed the game forever.

Kentucky Wildcats head coach John Calipari talks with Alex Poythress, Dakari Johnson, Aaron Harrison, and Marcus Lee during the second half of the UK men's basketball game versus Texas-Arlington at Rupp Arena in Lexington, Ky., on Tuesday, November, 19, 2013. Photo by Jonathan Krueger | Staff

Kentucky Wildcats head coach John Calipari talks with Alex Poythress, Dakari Johnson, Aaron Harrison, and Marcus Lee during the second half of the UK men’s basketball game versus Texas-Arlington at Rupp Arena in Lexington, Ky., on Tuesday, November, 19, 2013. Photo by Jonathan Krueger | Staff

They ultimately lost back-to-back national championship games, but Jalen Rose, Chris Webber and Juwan Howard went on to have successful NBA careers.

Last week, Rose, now an ESPN analyst, was asked to compare UK’s current freshman class to his 1991-92 squad.

“Are five freshmen going to start?” Rose asked. “If you start two, three or four, that’s where the comparison ends.”

On Tuesday, Calipari started five freshmen again in the Cats’ 105-76 win over the University of Texas at Arlington.

Coincidence? Maybe.

Calipari gave his reasons for inserting freshman forward Marcus Lee into the starting lineup. While none of them included the comments of a 40-year-old NBA veteran, it does create an interesting argument about the context of the Cats’ roster this season.

In some ways, UK looks similar to the “Fab Five” of Michigan in size and skill level. But Calipari has a luxury that former Wolverine head coach Steve Fischer didn’t — depth.

Calipari said throughout the offseason that a seven-man rotation would work best, while other players could break into the lineup if they proved themselves in practice.

The funny thing is, he has run into a “problem.” Too many guys are proving themselves in practice.

In wins over Robert Morris and UT-Arlington, he has used a nine-man rotation, giving increased playing time to Lee and fellow freshman guard Dominique Hawkins.

Those nine guys are averaging at least 10 minutes per game. Six average 19 or more. The “Fab Five” had four guys averaging at least 19 minutes per game. Once Fischer set his freshman lineup, he found a formula that worked.

It appears now that Calipari is forcing himself to look past his preconceived hesitations of unleashing his bench. With nine athletic, quality players, you can outrun teams in lesser shape and tailor your lineup to the opponent and the situation.

The 2013-14 Cats are different than those Wolverines and are probably better from a depth of talent standpoint.

Whatever the real reason was for starting five freshmen this week, Calipari may have realized how useful his depth can be moving forward.

And when he truly harnesses the resources sitting next to him on the bench, he’ll have an argument that not even Jalen Rose can refute.