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Could UK really play with three big men? The idea sounds tempting to the Cats

John Calipari was starting to come around to this big-man lineup idea that friend and former coach Joe B. Hall has talked about so much when he decided to plop down next to him Thursday at the Wildcat Coal Lodge and ask for a few more details.

Coach Cal started talking, but the man he was sitting next to didn’t say much. In fact, the bronze-casted statue didn’t say anything at all.

“He wasn’t real talkative,” Calipari said. “He usually is.”

Jokes aside, whenever Calipari asks the real Coach Hall about how to play big men together, Hall can’t stop talking. The frequency and allure of the persuasion has become so compelling that Calipari appears to be warming up to the idea of playing freshmen big men Nerlens Noel and Willie Cauley-Stein together.

“I may stack them together, put them both on the same side of the court,” Calipari said Thursday at UK’s annual Media Day. “I may put them on the elbow. I’m going to mess around. I don’t know how much per game we’ll play those two. I really have no idea. It may be five minutes, 15 minutes. What if they’re both really good together? It may be 25 minutes. So I don’t know yet.”

And what about three bigs together like Calipari proposed this summer with either Kyle Wiltjer or Alex Poythress at the small forward position?

For a man that never stops coming up with ideas, the possibilities seem endless with the stable of thoroughbreds Calipari has collected this year. But while the pieces are there, Calipari doesn’t know how he will assemble them, as is the case in every preseason.

“Literally, we don’t know how we’re going to play yet,” Calipari said in an interview last month. “And that’s the disadvantage. You have all these teams that know how they’re going to play. They have the same team back. They’re just going to touch up. They added a couple of guys to see if they can get better, and then they build that base. Well, we have no base.”

In a sense, it’s fun for Calipari. Like a mad scientist, he gets to mix and match, experiment and re-assemble every year with the constant roster turnover.

“This is all exciting,” Coach Cal said. “I mean, think about it. It would be boring to have the same team every year, I think. We’re coming in and have no idea. I have in my mind things that I think will work, and they may or may not work.”

Flat top or no flat top, Nerlens Noel gives the Cats a lot of length inside. (photo by Chet White, UK Athletics)

And one of those ideas is the trio of big men.

For all the talent Calipari has amassed over the years, he has never really had twin towers like he does this season, much less a trio of them.

Last year he had Anthony Davis, Terrence Jones, Kyle Wiltjer and Eloy Vargas, but Jones was closer to a small forward than a center, Wiltjer filled a role as a 3-point shooter and Vargas played sparingly. The year before he had Josh Harrellson and Jones, big guys by most standards, but neither was overwhelmingly long. In his first season at Kentucky, DeMarcus Cousins roamed the middle, but Patrick Patterson was transitioned to more of a combo forward position to ready him for the NBA.

With every group, Calipari changed how they played to emphasize their strengths.

Touted for his Dribble Drive Motion Offense, the Cats actually used very little of it in Coach Cal’s first season on the job. The Dribble Drive showed up more in year two, but so did dribble handoffs with Harrellson and Brandon Knight. By year three, last year’s championship season, Calipari incorporated pick-and-rolls, an offense he once thought was archaic.

“The handoff stuff we started doing happened because Josh Harrellson popped out, grabbed the ball, and handed it to Brandon Knight who made a shot,” Coach Cal said. “It was not anything designed. I said, ‘Oh my gosh, that looks good.’ And all these handoffs came from that play.”

What the handoffs showed is that Calipari is willing to play to the strengths of his team. While other coaches have a system they make players play to, Calipari’s system is to adapt to his players.

The handoffs were the strength in Harrellson’s senior season because of Knight’s ability to shoot. Last year, Marquis Teague’s physical play and Davis’ ability to catch nearly every lob opened up the pick-and-roll game.

What will it be this year? Calipari doesn’t know. The only certainty is that his team will play fast and that it will use the Dribble Drive. How they get into the Dribble Drive remains a question, but playing off the strength of an extremely long team, one Coach Cal says is longer than last year’s giants, could be the route he goes.

“We may do both elbows, two guys on the elbows,” Calipari said. “We may even open the court wide open and have both bigs on the baseline five feet off the block. So now figure the court. You’ve got wings wide, and now if you drive, if you help, we throw lobs. You’ve got both of them. You can throw a lob to either one, 7 feet, 6-11. It’s all kind of stuff you can try, but it’s what will work.”

It’s hard to imagine anyone catching – and dunking – as many lob passes as Davis did a season ago, but it doesn’t sound like the lob pass is being phased out. With all that length and a crafty player like Ryan Harrow running the point, the lob will remain an integral part of the offense.

“Every drill in practice ends with a lob,” Cauley-Stein said. “Everything we’re doing is lob-based. A lot of points are going to come from lobs.”

Cauley-Stein, UK’s first 7-footer since Jared Carter, will present problems for opposing defenses because of his speed. After watching the former wide receiver finish first or second in nearly every sprint in practice, Calipari has emphasized to Cauley-Stein and Noel to take advantage of transition opportunities.

In a sense, Calipari can afford to play those two together because they’re not your typical big men. There are few liabilities with that size and speed combination.

“It’s different than any bigs I’ve played with before because Anthony could get up and down the floor, but I feel like they run a lot faster and they jump a lot faster off the floor,” Harrow said. “That’s kind of weird to see because of how big they are. It’s a good thing for me because we can just get out and run and I can just throw the ball up there to them.”

But where does the up-tempo style leave Wiltjer, who is that potential third big man piece? At 6-10, Wiltjer certainly has the size to form a towering trio, but he isn’t exactly a jackrabbit in the open court.

Calipari sees him as the trailer to the offense because of his ability to shoot the 3. It’s how the Boston Celtics used Larry Bird late in his career.

“He’ll be behind the ball all the time,” Calipari said. “So now he’ll take it out, we are flying, and if he rebounds it, he’ll be behind it. If he doesn’t rebound it, he’ll still be out ahead and he’ll be fine. And we still may try him into a dragging screen. What I like is we fly and as the ball comes back, it’s coming back to his hands. Now you have a skilled player.”

If Coach Cal decides to use the three trees in the paint, he said it will force him to use a zone on defense.

“Kyle would be in the middle of the zone,” Calipari said. “Those two guys (Cauley-Stein and Noel on) the wings because they’re really active and have quick feet. Kyle is the middle big at 6-10. You’d be 7-foot, 6-11, 6-10. It would be hard to practice against because we’d have Jon Hood and Jarrod (Polson) be the frontline of the other team. It would look good though.”

Returner profiles

Jon Hood | Twany Beckham | Jarrod Polson | Ryan Harrow | Kyle Wiltjer

Cauley-Stein thinks it would look more than good. He said it would “create havoc for everybody.”

“If you were to see the lineup on paper, you would be saying nobody is getting a shot up,” Cauley-Stein said. “It would be tough.”

Calipari has toyed with using a 2-3 or a 3-2 zone, but Hall is trying to get him to employ a 1-3-1. While he has warmed up to Hall’s idea of playing a big lineup, Calipari may need more convincing on the 1-3-1.

“Could you put (Cauley-Stein and Noel) on the wings of a 1-3-1 and let them be your wings?” Calipari asked himself. “I don’t know. I’m worried about us step slide, step slide, close out with your hand up.”

Thursday isn’t the first time Calipari has thrown out the idea of using zone and it probably won’t be the last. He’s rarely used a zone in a game during his time at Kentucky (which begs the question, is he just playing mind tricks with the rest of the country?), but should he decide to experiment with it early, there could be some early bumps in the road.

“It’s hard because you’re going to be experimenting against Maryland and Duke (to start the season),” Coach Cal said. “Can you go down twice, take two Ls and still be good? A couple years ago we lost a bunch of league games and everybody was in a full?blown panic. I kept saying I like my team, and we were a basket or two away from winning the national title in Houston.”

For all the ideas and questions, not even Calipari knows just yet how his team will play this year.