Bo Ryan was talking about Kentucky’s depth on Thursday. The Wisconsin coach complimented the Wildcats’ unusual rotation by saying:
“They have inside and outside depth that really no one else in the country has.”
Ryan could have expanded his net back into history when comparing the unbeaten Wildcats (38-0), who faced Ryan’s team Saturday night in Indianapolis in the Final Four.
This Kentucky team, with nine players in the regular rotation, entered the Final Four as perhaps the deepest in college basketball history. None of the seven teams that went unbeaten and won the national title, the last being Indiana in 1976, got bench production like this Kentucky team.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to The Charlotte Observer
Of the national champions since 1980, only three (2013 Louisville, 1996 Kentucky, 2003 Syracuse) received comparable scoring from their bench but none more than this Kentucky group, which dominates its Final Four colleagues by comparison.
Through the first four NCAA tournament games, Kentucky’s bench accounted for 30.1 percent of its scoring. That’s more than any national champion in the past 35 years or any of the seven unbeaten champions going back to San Francisco in 1956. By comparison, Duke’s bench provided 11.7 percent of the Blue Devils’ points through the first four games, and it was shut out against Gonzaga.
The Kentucky bench has averaged 36.6 minutes per game through the first four NCAA games, which is more than any champion in the past 20 years.
“That should be the narrative of this team,” Kentucky coach John Calipari said before his team’s 68-66 win over Notre Dame in the Elite Eight. “It’s not a lot of times, but you’re talking about a lot of guys sharing, the term we use, everybody’s trying to eat, don’t be a hog, everybody’s trying to eat.”
This year’s Michigan State team (35.8 minutes in four NCAA tournament games) was the closest to Kentucky in terms of bench minutes. The Spartans’ bench accounted for 25 percent of its scoring, including 26 points in their Elite Eight win over Louisville.
Wisconsin only got only 9.6 percent of its points from its bench and averages 15.6 minutes per game.
Duke, which faced Michigan State in the first semifinal Saturday, got 11.7 percent of its scoring and an average of 19.2 minutes from its bench in tournament play. Duke’s bench didn’t score in the Blue Devils’ 66-52 win over Gonzaga in the Elite Eight.
Tanks on the hill
Kentucky’s historic depth was not by design. Calipari will be the first to admit that.
When Calipari reloaded his roster last spring with a new crop of NBA prospects, he didn’t anticipate so many players coming back from the previous team, which lost to Connecticut in the title game.
So when the Harrison twins, guards Andrew and Aaron, put the NBA on hold, and both forward Willie Cauley-Stein and wing Alex Poythress returned for their junior seasons, Calipari stumbled into a surplus of talent.
“We had four guys return that we did not think were coming back, so we were left with 10 guys,” Calipari said. “Now, my choice was to either play seven and figure out why I wasn’t going to play three.”
“I didn’t think that we could shuffle 10 in and out. That’s why we platooned.”
The “platoon” system, or “tanks coming over the hill,” Calipari famously said after a 72-40 rout of Kansas on Nov. 18 in Indianapolis, lasted 10 games. Poythress tore the ligaments in his left knee before the Dec. 13 win over UNC. The platoon became a rotation.
Guard Devin Booker (10.1 points, 21.6 minutes per game for the season), point guard Tyler Ulis (5.6 points, 24 minutes per game) play almost as much as the Harrisons, who have started every game.
Forwards Dakari Johnson (6.5 points, 16.5 minutes) and Marcus Lee (2.7 points, 11.1 minutes) don’t play as much as stars Towns or Cauley-Stein, but their value is clear when Cauley-Stein still had the energy on Notre Dame’s last possession to chase and harass guard Jerian Grant the length of the court to hold off the Irish’s upset bid.
Duke has had eight scholarship players since Rasheed Suliamon’s dismissal in late January. That has meant more minutes for Duke’s stars. They responded by winning 16 of 17 to get to the Final Four.
So there’s more than one way to manage a bench.
“I love the way we play,” Duke freshman Jahlil Okafor said. “We don’t have to do anything that anybody else does.”
Junior forward Marshall Plumlee gave Duke some big contributions in the postseason – 12 points in 21 minutes in an ACC tournament win over N.C. State and 10 points and 10 rebounds in the Round of 64 win over Robert Morris.
And junior forward Amile Jefferson (21.6 minutes per game) has played the most off Duke’s bench.
But guards Quinn Cook and Tyus Jones played all 40 minutes against Gonzaga and both played 38 minutes in the Sweet 16 win over Utah.
Of course, winning with a shorter bench is nothing new to Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski. Of his four national title teams, his first in 1991 got the most from the bench.
That team averaged 26.5 minutes per game and 23.9 percent of the scoring in the tournament.
Krzyzewski’s last title team, in 2010, averaged 18.3 minutes and 10.3 percent of the scoring in the tournament.
That Duke team, which also won the title in Indianapolis, didn’t get any bench points against Butler in the 2010 national title game. It also turned out, they didn’t need any.
Deep Big Blue
How Kentucky’s bench, in terms of average minutes played and percentage of points in NCAA tournament games, compares to national championship teams since 1980:
% of Points
Seven teams, since the first NCAA tournament in 1939, have come before Kentucky (38-0) and won the national title without losing a game. Bench production during the NCAA tournament wasn’t a main strength of those historic teams:
% of bench points
1956 San Francisco
How Kentucky has used its bench in the NCAA tournament:
How Duke has used its bench in the NCAA tournament:
San Diego State