As interesting as John Calipari's platoon system is, it obscures the fact that Kentucky is one of the more experienced teams in the nation, starting two juniors and two sophomores who played major roles on a team that lost in the national championship game. The only freshman in the starting line-up is a guy who could end up going No. 1 overall in the draft. They are a deep and experienced team who aren't asking their freshmen to carry a heavy load early, even though they have one of the best freshmen classes in the country.
Here's the scary part about them - their freshmen could actually be better than their sophomores and juniors, so the best chance to beat them could be early in the season, when their younger guys are still getting their feet wet at the college level. That's what happened in 2012, when a team with Anthony Davis, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Terrence Jones rampaged to a national title and a 38-2 record. A lot would have to go right to beat them, especially in Rupp Arena, but get it to a one possession game and anything can happen, shout out to Christian Watford.
The main thing Texas has going for them is size, as they might be the only team in the country who can physically match up with the Kentucky front-court. Texas starts 6'11, 6'9, 6'8 and even has a 6'11 future lottery pick coming off the bench, which is something not many teams other than Kentucky can say. The game will probably be a jarring experience for both teams, since it will be the only time all season they won't have an overwhelming edge upfront in size and physicality. This is going to be some big-boy basketball.
The key for the Texas guards is to not get baited into a different type of game, especially without Isaiah Taylor. This is all about maintaining composure and minimizing silliness - if you are going to beat Kentucky in Lexington, you have to take care of the ball, you have to take good shots with the floor balanced behind you and you have to keep them in the half-court. Make it a low possession game and get Kentucky into a three-point shooting contest and maybe you have a chance. Let them get easy run-outs and buckets in transition and you don't.
PG - Andrew Harrison - If there's a weak spot to this team, it's probably the Harrisons. I don't think either would have had the foot-speed to contain Isaiah Taylor and they shouldn't be able to speed up the Texas guards on defense. Andrew is a big PG (6'6 210) who is playing under more control and is shooting at a much higher clip as a sophomore, but he doesn't have the burst or quickness you would expect for a guy with his recruiting pedigree. If he's taking a lot of shots, that's probably the best outcome for Texas.
SG - Aaron Harrison - Aaron is more of the scorer than Andrew and he doesn't have as much hair on his head, if you are trying to figure out which is which. He takes a lot of 3's (4.6 a game, the most on the team) and he's not making them at a really high clip (25%), so you probably want to see if he can make them before you close-out on him too hard. DeMarcus Holland should be able to choke off one of the Harrisons - the question is which one do you put him on and how does the other fare against the other Texas guards.
SF - Alex Poythress - Probably the most pound-for-pound athletic player on the Kentucky roster at 6'8 240. The way he moves for a guy with his size is frightening - he might be the toughest individual defender that Jonathan Holmes will see all season. He's not going to be able to bully or out-quick Poythress, so it will be interesting to see what he comes up with. On the other side of the ball, Poythress is still trying to figure out if he is anything beyond an energy guy who runs the floor, hits the offensive glass and gets lobs at the rim.
PF - Karl Towns - The highlight of McDonald's Week in Chicago for me was watching Towns and Myles Turner wreck the other big men in 1-on-1 drills. They were too big, they were too good as shooters and they were too comfortable with the ball in their hands for the other guys to do much of anything. I think Towns is the more fluid athlete of the two, but I sure would like to watch those guys go at it again. Kentucky has a tendency to forget about him in the half-court sometimes, but when he has the ball, good things tend to happen for them.
C - Willie Cauley-Stein - Cauley-Stein was a 7'1 245 WR in high school, which tells you all you really need to know about him. It's easy to forget how tall he is when he is on the court because he moves like such a smaller player. He's an elite athlete who glides on defense and covers up a lot of space really quickly. He's nowhere near a finished product on offense, but he's starting to show signs of being able play under control and score and pass out of the high post, which is really a scary proposition.
Bench aka Starters II
PG - Tyler Ulis - You would expect a 5'9 175 guy who gets minutes at Kentucky to be a really good basketball player and Ulis does not disappoint in that respect. He's really fast, he's a good shooter and he knows how to run the offense. He leads the team in steals and he was the guy whose defensive pressure kind of turned the tables in the Providence game. Expect Calipari to try and unleash him at some point in the game on the Texas ball-handlers.
SG - Devin Booker - Booker was billed as a shooter coming out of high school and he has lived up to it so far, shooting 52% from the field and 47% from 3. He's not the best athlete in the world, but he's pretty tall (6'6 205), so he can get his shot off against most players. The freshmen guards are the ones who really scare me on Kentucky and I suspect they will be the ones who get the minutes if the game is close late.
SF - Trey Lyles - Lyles is the guy playing the most out of position at Kentucky, as he is essentially trying to pull off what Holmes is doing as a freshman. At 6'10 240, he's a natural PF whose playing out of position as a SF, but he moves and handles the ball well enough to where he might be able to pull it off. The key with Lyles, as it is for a lot of Kentucky players, is being able to consistently make 3's. They asked him to compare his game to a current NBA player at the McDonald's Game and he said he was a mix of Carmelo Anthony and Tim Duncan, so he's definitely not lacking in confidence.
PF - Marcus Lee - Probably the guy most likely to get squeezed out if Calipari ends up shortening the rotation. Lee is a long and athletic 6'9 220 big man who can help on both ends of the court, but he's not the most skilled guy in the world and he would probably function best as a C on a small-ball team. At Kentucky, where he has to play as a PF next to even bigger players, he can only be so valuable.
C - Dakari Johnson - At 7'0 255, he is their best low-post scorer. He is huge, he has good feet and hands and he is determined to score the ball when he is anywhere near the basket. He has also lost a ton of weight and appears a little lighter on his feet than he did as a freshman. There are a lot of similarities between Dakari and Killa Cam Ridley, although I'm not sure how much they will see each other.
Keys to the Game:
1) Stretching out the Kentucky defense - It's almost impossible to score on these guys when they have multiple shot-blocker hanging out near the rim, so you have to be able to space the floor with your big men. They have the size of an NBA team, so you have to play NBA offense to beat them - pick-and-pops, running guards off screens and spacing the floor so they can force the defense to give up something on the drive.
2) Win the transition game - The way both these teams can play defense, it's going to be important to get some easy shots in transition. You want to be able to push the ball at them, but not at the expense of forcing bad shots or turning the ball over. A bad shot against Kentucky is the first pass in their fast break, especially if the floor isn't balanced behind you. Isaiah Taylor is the only guard who should be making hero plays and he isn't playing on Friday.
3) Playing the match-up game - If the game is close in the 2nd half, Calipari is going to start shuffling his line-ups and throwing combinations of players at Barnes to see if anything sticks. They have so many different looks they can throw at you that it's almost impossible to prepare - Rick is going to have to think on his toes and be ready for anything. The swing point is probably the SF position and whether or not both teams go with three guards or three forwards late.
You would obviously rather have Isaiah Taylor, but even without him, there's no reason Texas should come into this game feeling like they can't win. What's the line from Dumb & Dumber? I'm saying there's a chance.