As Kentucky has shifted to a performance-based model, Karl-Anthony Towns has emerged as its prime-time threat
JOHN CALIPARI's manifesto on allocation of postseason playing time was distributed to millions of homes by CBS, via a halftime interview on the first day of the NCAA tournament. "This is not communism," the Kentucky coach said. "You've gotta perform."
The 38--0 Wildcats are vying to become the first undefeated national champion since Indiana in 1976 in large part because they sacrificed individual playing time and shot attempts for the greater good. The platoon system that Calipari devised to accommodate his overstuffed, ultratalented roster—playing two five-man units for around 20 minutes each—was founded on his principle that "everybody's trying to eat." The beginnings of Kentucky's juggernaut were communist, but a December left ACL tear to junior wing Alex Poythress forced Calipari to reassess platooning; eventually he settled on a nine-man rotation with less wholesale subbing. Now he rides certain players, or combinations of players, based his perception of their energy and engagement. And during the NCAA tournament some Wildcats are eating far more than others.
Karl-Anthony Towns, Kentucky's 6'11" freshman center and potentially the No. 1 pick in the June NBA draft, needed time to acclimate to college after moving from Piscataway, N.J., to Lexington last summer. The 19-year-old missed the traditional chicken-and-rice dish his Dominican-born mother, Jacqueline Cruz, often made, and he got flustered by physical play, both in practice and in games. The current version of Towns looks sated and mostly unflappable. He's not "crying like a baby anymore" over fouls, freshman guard Tyler Ulis says, and he's also feasting on post feeds. Towns staved off Notre Dame's upset bid in the Elite Eight by scoring a career-high 25 points and shooting 8 for 8 on low-block attempts in the second half. Kentucky's regular-season offense was a balanced arrangement in which Towns used 23.3% of the team's possessions, but during the tournament he has been using 28.3%, with a team-high efficiency rating of 127.2. The onetime role player now handles as big a portion of Kentucky's offense as Frank Kaminsky, SI's national player of the year, does for Wisconsin.
While the Wildcats rode Towns to beat the Irish 68--66, they also demoralized West Virginia 78--39 in the Sweet 16 even though he only scored one point. Kentucky has the luxury of backup plans for its backup plans. The most Big Dance minutes (about 28 per game) have gone to its two best defenders, Ulis and 7-footer Willie Cauley-Stein, and they're joined on the court by whoever's clicking offensively. The Harrison twins, sophomore guards Aaron and Andrew, can play small roles early in a game and then assert themselves in the highest-pressure situations, and freshman forward Trey Lyles and freshman shooting guard Devin Booker, as well as sophomore center Dakari Johnson, can provide occasional scoring infusions. "What makes us unique," Calipari says, is that "there's no pressure on you to play great." So the spirited get minutes, and the sluggish sit. And the Wildcats keep on winning.
DAVID E. KLUTHO FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED
HUNGER GAMES A tougher, more efficient Towns is gobbling up possessions for the Wildcats.