We may never platoon again, but players will always come first

As we enter the month of May and get ready for the summer months, I’ve had a chance to reflect on the 2014-15 season.

It was a terrific run. I’m disappointed we didn’t win two more games because I really believed we were going to. It never entered my mind that we would lose, even late in the Wisconsin game or the Notre Dame game.

Even though things didn’t end the way we wanted them to, it was a season we will never forget. It was also one I would never change in terms of how we approached and executed it. Why? Because for as long as I am the head coach at Kentucky, we will always put the players first.

Our goal at the beginning of the year was to have eight players drafted. the players understood for this to happen we would have to be selfless and have a historic season. If Alex doesn’t get hurt I believe we have eight. They were selfless and they did historic stuff. Now that the season is over, I’m so excited for these seven kids, three graduates and their future as professionals.

I’m also excited about who we have coming back and who we have joining us next season. I think how you will see us playing going forward will be closer to how we have always played. That won’t be platooning.

In all my coaching career, I’ve always played six, seven or eight guys. As a matter of fact, at UMass in 1996 I played five – the sixth man played single-digit minutes. My guards played 39 minutes a game. I’ve done this all kinds of ways, playing as many as eight or nine guys, which I thought was a bit much, but never have I ever tried to play 10 until this year.

Now, the question became, why would you have that many players where you felt you had to play everybody? Well, Willie, Alex and the twins decided to come back to be better prepared to chase their dreams. Like any player who says they want to come back, I don’t say, “Great, I love it!” I say, “Tell me why you want to come back,” just as I did with Patrick Patterson and these guys. If you want to come back, why? If the answer is legitimate, and a good answer, I’m like fine, now let’s get after this. The hard work is out in front of us. It’s going to be the hardest thing you’ve ever done because now you’ve decided to come back, which means you must get better or you’ve made a bad decision. By those four coming back, we had 10 players.

The only way I could figure out for all of them to eat was to platoon. I didn’t feel comfortable trying to sub 10 guys in and out. I thought it would hurt every player if I did that. I needed a way for every player to help themselves, their team and their teammates.

As it has always been in my career, I played the best players the most each game, and the best scorers shot the most. That has been my history, even with the platoon. This season, Aaron, Devin and Andrew were our leading shot takers, and as Karl improved, he moved into that group. Normally, we will average five guys in double figures, whether I’m playing five, six or seven. We will have four or five guys score 25 or more points in a game every year because if you have it going, we’re going to let you go. Those things didn’t change this past year, nor will they in the future.

Defensively, when you play for us, you’re going to learn to guard. Not only will you guard your position, you will also be able to guard another position or two because it adds value to you as a player and helps us win more basketball games. You will learn how to share with other really good players who have similar goals and aspirations that you have.

I’m happy we were able to make the platoon work for every player this year. Karl is going to be at the front of the draft, Willie is going to be shortly thereafter, I believe Trey and Devin will be in the lottery, and the other three have chances for being in the first round. Seven players drafted from one team has never been done in the history of the draft. Six has only been done once, and that was in 2012 when we did it. And in 2010 we had five drafted in the first round, which also had never been done.

By this summer we will have had 26 guys in six years drafted, potentially 13 lottery picks and maybe three No. 1 draft picks. Again, that will be in the last six years. Derrick Rose, John Wall, DeMarcus Cousins and Eric Bledsoe have signed max deals. Anthony Davis has a max deal coming. Tyreke Evans and Patrick Patterson have signed new deals. Terrence Jones, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Brandon Knight have new deals coming. It’s not stopping.

Let’s not forget, just because you don’t shoot the most doesn’t mean it will hurt your draft stock. Anthony and Michael were fourth and fifth in shot attempts and went one-two in the draft. Karl and Willie were fourth and sixth in shot attempts and they’ll be top-10 picks this year.

Never in my life did I think that I would platoon, but most people didn’t think we would ever win 38 straight to start the year, set a record for wins in a season and have seven players drafted. It’s amazing people could try to use that against us, but I guess you have to come up with something.

If you ask me if I’m ever going to platoon again, my answer is NO. Last season was an absolute outlier. It’s just not the way I like to coach. I would rather play seven or eight guys because I believe that gives us the best chance to win. I think we wrote the book on platooning this year, but I hope we stick it on the shelf and never have to use it again.

Ultimately, players come here to get better and to put themselves in the best position to chase their dreams. They also come here because they know they’re going to be challenged in all parts of their life – academically, personally, maturity. That’s what college is and should be about.

What we’ve done is become experts in putting these kids in the best position to chase those dreams, but we do not do it at the expense of academics. We’ve graduated every kid who has been eligible in my six years and three players have graduated in three years. We’ve had a B-average over the last five years. The growth isn’t just on the court; it’s off the court as well.

We also don’t do it at the cost of winning. In the last five years we’ve won the most games, been to the most Final Fours, been to two championship games, won league championships and a national title.

I’ll say this again: This isn’t for everybody. But as a family, don’t be fooled. There are a lot of great programs out there, but there’s only one Kentucky. There’s only one school that will have had 26 guys taken in the NBA Draft in the last six years, including 13 lottery picks if you add the four we may have this year. There’s only one school that’s been to four Final Fours in the last five years.

Why would all of our kids come back to Lexington if they didn’t enjoy their college experience, whether they stayed one, two, three or four years? They all come back.  This is their family.

As we go forward, we’re going to continue to care about kids and every decision we make will be based on them. I may never platoon again for as long as I’m coaching, but I’ll always care about the kids and do whatever I think is best for them.