In late October, Kentucky coach John Calipari announced a unique substitution pattern, one specifically designed to take advantage of the squad's nine McDonald's All-Americans. He would platoon his Wildcats, splitting the team into White and Blue units that would alternate for several minutes spurts. The strategy's purpose was two-fold: it kept each uber-talented Wildcat content with their playing time, and the shifts would keep defenses off-balance.
The platoon was a fascinating experiment, but it effectively ended December 12 when Alex Poythress, a junior, tore his ACL. The forward had been part of the starters (the blue squad), and though Kentucky's platoons have remained a popular talking point during the NCAA tournament, the system has long become irrelevant to the Wildcats' 38-0 success.
According to Cards and Cats Stats, which has been tracking Kentucky's plus/minus breakdowns in 2015, since UK's win over Texas A&M in early January, there have only been three instances where a five-man lineup has played ten or more possessions in consecutive contests. Calipari realized his platoons were flawed without Poythress, and without making any grand proclamations or coining a nickname (remember the Tweak?)—he just killed the system.
Since then, Calipari has done a fantastic job balancing his lineups; he's perfectly tuned with his team, frequently working the pairings between guards and bigs to emphasize strengths and compensate for weaknesses. During the final 12 minutes against Notre Dame, the Wildcats used 13 lineup variations, shuffling Dakari Johnson for Karl-Anthony Towns and going "small" by shifting Tyler Ulis to point guard while surrounding the sub 6-footer with four Wildcats standing 6-foot-6 or taller.
According to Ken Pomeroy, there is only one rotation Calipari uses for more than 10 percent of the team's possessions—Aaron and Andrew Harrison, Trey Lyles, Willie Cauley-Stein, and Karl-Anthony Towns—and this group is Cal's opening salvo. Kentucky wins a Division I leading 87 percent of jump balls, significantly more than the next best squad (San Diego State, 81 percent), and jumpstarts the Wildcats' momentum to start the game.
Against Notre Dame in the Elite Eight, the first offensive possession was a high double screen for Lyles, who, after the ball was entered to Towns at the free throw line, receives a perfect lob pass for an ally-oop.
That lineup is the undefeated season's foundation. The Harrisons have been much maligned by draft experts who expected them to be next-gen Dwyane Wades, but they constantly attack the rim, and use their height, frame, and relentless energy to bully their way to the bucket. No other UK guards attempt and convert more of their attempts around the hoop.
At the moment, Andrew is probably the better of the twins, walking the thin line between forcing the action and also staying in control. His 113 free throw rate in the NCAA tournament is absurd, and Calipari has given him near total free rein in the halfcourt, knowing even if the guard is defended well, he'll likely still get two free freebies.
Towns is a load on the block, and even with his rudimentary post moves, he buries himself so close to the bucket that all he needs is a drop step or spin to convert the two.
These two are also capable defenders, which helps hide the defensive deficiencies of Lyles, a 6-foot-10 wing-forward whose handle and quickness helps create his own mismatches.
And then there is Cauley-Stein, the team's most valuable player. No other Wildcat has been more essential to the undefeated season than the 7-foot junior. Cauley-Stein represents the evolution of big men. He is quick enough to defend the fleetest of point guards—i.e. his block of Jerian Grant's step back, which foiled UK's other bigs throughout the game—and he sees the field at least two steps before play unfolds to help defend. Cauley-Stein never left the floor for the final twelve minutes of the Elite Eight win.
He also possesses superb body control; even when he closes out hard on shooters, flying through the air with his tatted, elongated wingspan, he still avoids contact. Cauley-Stein commits the fewest fouls per 40 minutes of all of the UK bigs, enabling him to stay on the floor for much longer stretches.
There are rumors of a Cauley-Stein mid-range jump shot, but he hasn't been a scoring threat more than a few feet from the rim. Still, when opponents sag off Cauley-Stein to crowd the interior, he has a deft passing touch.
The starting lineup, however, isn't particularly skilled from the perimeter, so Calipari will often substitute Devin Booker and Tyler Ulis to form a three-guard unit (along with Aaron Harrison). When Cal goes to this lineup, he's looking for a group that doesn't commit turnovers, spaces the floor for halfcourt paint cuts, and disadvantages a defense, forcing an opponent to consider how to best cover Towns with three three-point shooters.
This group sparked Kentucky's comeback versus the Irish. Down 59-53 with six minutes remaining, Ulis was stationed on the right corner and fed Towns on the block. The big had four options: overwhelm Zach Auguste (who had three fouls), drop step to the middle and hit Booker at the top of the key, draw the defense and skip pass to Aaron Harrison in the left corner, or pass back out to Ulis, whose defender was cheating on the double. He went with Ulis, who splashed the net for his only points of the game.
The Harrison-heavy three-guard lineup
Calipari also likes to utilize an additional three-guard lineup with both Harrisons and Ulis. This look allows the Harrisons to do what they do best—play off the ball—and frees the sophomores to freestyle, penetrating and probing the half-court with dribble-drives.
Ulis, who converts nearly 42 percent of his threes, is the pressure valve with a late shot clock, and is the defensive stop-gap should either Harrison get too deep and can't recover for transition defense.
Tyler Ulis, defensive fixer
Ulis would be the best defender on any other squad, and while Ulis and Booker are the most offensively efficient Wildcat backcourt—Ulis, who assists on nearly 30 percent of Kentucky's field goals, is keen for all halfcourt openings, but he is particularly adept at hitting Booker in prime scoring position—Calipari pairs the two freshmen guards because Ulis mitigates Booker's defensive miscues.
Even though Steve Vasturia scores on this backdoor layup, Ulis ices Demetrius Jackson to the left sideline, forcing him to make the pass rather than attempt a three-pointer after coming off the pick or getting to the basket himself. He can't stop every play on his own, but pairing him with the lesser defensive units lets Ulis plug at least some of the holes.
Or consider this clip, which ably shows Ulis' ability to not only mask his teammate's weakness but also that of this specific lineup. Dakari Johnson can protect the rim, and is second of the team in defensive rebounds per 40 minutes, but opponents exploit his limited quickness in pick and roll possessions, as the Irish initially attempt with Auguste setting a pick on a Booker-guarded Jerian Grant, who beats both into the paint before kicking out for the three.
Since Pat Connaughton doesn't have an open look, Notre Dame resets and Auguste again tries to pick Demetrius Jackson, Ulis' man. The UK guard swiftly sidesteps the pick, beats Jackson to his intended spot, and then strips him, the ball caroming out of bounds off Jackson's leg for the turnover.
When Ulis is matched with Cauley-Stein, Kentucky is at its most disruptive. A common refrain for beating UK is inverting the offense, which forces their bigs to rise away from the basket, and opponents, like Notre Dame and Florida, have used pick and roll to create shifts and holes in UK's staunch defense. During the SEC tournament, the Gators used 59 possessions in 64-49 loss – 31 of the squad's offensive plays were the result of PnR.
In both of these instances, Ulis is instrumental in frustrating the Gators' offense. He is first caught out of position on the pick, recovering quickly by turning his head—usually a defensive no-no but fine in this instance—and then looping under the screen. The Gators' try to set another pick to free Kasey Hill, and Ulis smartly goes under the subsequent screen, realizing Hill is a terrible three-point shooter and scores the majority of his points on rim attempts.
The second clip shows the defensive brilliance of pairing Cauley-Stein and Ulis. Ulis ably bypasses the pick, and matches Florida guard Chris Chiozza, and since Cauley-Stein flat-hedges to contain Chiozza—positioned to block the lay-up but also erase a floater—Ulis can shift to cover the rolling Alex Murphy. The resulting steal is a by-product of Kentucky's best pick and roll tandem.
Quick-hits with Dakari Johnson freeing up Cauley-Stein
Johnson does have his moments, and a play Calipari often uses for a quick two-pointer involves the 7-footer. As demonstrated in these two possessions versus West Virginia and Notre Dame, Johnson will pick Andrew Harrison's defender at the top of the key, freeing the guard to attack down the middle. In either a zone or man, the opposing big has to challenge Harrison, which enables Cauley-Stein (in both examples) to have an unimpeded ally-oop.
Calipari no longer platoons, but his lineups are so deep and varied that opponents have a difficult time preparing for Kentucky. Try to take away the perimeter, as Notre Dame did, and Towns will score 25 points. Force the action and speed up Kentucky, as West Virginia did, and Ulis will play 26 minutes of turnover-free ball. Physically intimidate Kentucky, as Cincinnati did, and the Wildcats will get to the line at will, making 20 of 28 free throws.
Wisconsin may have the best chance of any team in the tournament to defeat the Wildcats, but with these lineup combinations, only Kentucky can beat itself.
Photo via Getty