John Calipari has played regular rotations of just six and seven players the last two seasons. But each Coach Cal summoned someone from the bench, you knew that player would be talented. In 2010-11, it was normally DeAndre Liggins serving as the sixth man. A year later, Darius Miller and Kyle Wiltjer came off the bench.
Liggins and Miller have moved on to the NBA and Wiltjer likely to the starting lineup as a sophomore, but if the first half of Blue-White Scrimmage is any indication, the Cats appear to have at least two more super subs as they look to defend a national championship.
In fact, Calipari took things a step further after he saw what Julius Mays and Willie Cauley-Stein did in the opening 20 minutes.
"I told them at halftime, if you (asked) me Julius would start, Nerlens would start, I don't know who else would start," Calipari said.
It's obviously early, but UK began the first half with what seemed to be the likely starting five of Ryan Harrow, Archie Goodwin, Alex Poythress, Kyle Wiltjer and Nerlens Noel on the White team. They were opposed by Jarrod Polson, Tod Lanter, Jon Hood, Mays and Cauley-Stein on Blue, with Twany Beckham as a reserve.
With three McDonald's All-Americans, the nation's top incoming freshman in Noel and a significant size advantage, White seemed poised to exert its will. Led by possible sixth and seventh men Mays and Cauley-Stein, Blue had other ideas.
"We came out ready to play and the White team had a bunch of young guys and we had an old man," Hood said. "We had Julius and Julius is an old man. He knows how to play and he knows how to get prepared for a game. He's done it all his career."
He certainly did in the first half.
The second group raced out to a 25-7 lead within the first eight minutes and were ahead by double digits most of the half. Mays lived up to his reputation as a wily veteran, using an arsenal of shots, moves and changes of pace to keep defenders off balance. He scored 13 points on 5-of-8 shooting to go with two steals and two rebounds.
"I'm just trying to find my niche," Mays said. "I just want to do whatever this team needs me to do, whether that be score, whether that be coming in and distributing the ball and creating for others. I'm just willing to do whatever it takes to win."
After halftime, he didn't score a point, but he had four assists and three rebounds in his switch to the White team to finish with 13 points and five assists in an 89-88 Blue victory. In Calipari's estimation, Mays's contribution this season will be reminiscent of his sixth-man predecessor.
"(Mays will bring) What Darius brought us," Calipari said. "He'll make an open shot. He's better with the ball. You'll see him. He'll push it really hard. He's really strong, really heady. It's just Darius was bigger, but he brings the same kind of stuff."
Cauley-Stein, meanwhile, more than held his own against Noel, even swatting his way to a halftime blocked-shot draw at 3-3 with Noel, a player noted for his defensive prowess. Along with his blocks, he had 11 points, three rebounds and two assists. Playing all 40 minutes in an up-and-down game, Cauley-Stein scored just three points after the break, but did have nine rebounds and two more blocks to finish with 14 points, 12 rebounds and five blocks.
"I did alright, I played pretty hard the first half and then I got extremely tired," Cauley-Stein said. "In the second half my legs were kind of dead."
Cauley-Stein and Mays only reinforced why they're expected to be major parts of UK's rotation in the first half, but Hood made a case for himself as well. Returning from a knee injury that cost him all of last season, Hood had 17 points and five assists on the night, but simply being on the floor for 40 minutes of basketball would have been enough to please him.
"I was just happy to get out there and play," Hood said. "That's why I never stopped smiling the entire time. The White team had been on a bit of a run and Jarrod looked at me (and said), 'Why are you smiling?' Because I get to play."
As Hood hinted, the five who started on White eventually showed flashes of why everyone in Rupp Arena believed them to be the starting group. Harrow and Wiltjer switched to the Blue team late and finished with 20 and 20 points, respectively, and Noel did a little bit of everything with nine points, eight rebounds and seven blocks, but it was Goodwin and Poythress that nearly rallied White to victory.
Poythress was somewhat quiet in the first half, but finished with 25 points - 18 in the second half - including the play of the game on a thunderous dunk over the 7-foot Cauley-Stein.
"Alex is mean," Cauley-Stein said. "Alex is a beast. He's so strong. He dunks on somebody, it's going to hurt them."
Goodwin led all scorers with 32 points, but it took him 22 shots to get there. In the end, the freshman guard had a chance to tie the game with three free throws after some heavy campaigning by Calipari for a foul call with 0.1 seconds left. That will likely be the only time Coach Cal successfully changes a call by arguing with an official. Goodwin would make 2-of-3 for the final one-point margin.
Goodwin's point total was impressive, but Coach Cal wasn't shy about asking for more. On one exchange in particular, Goodwin opted to go in for a fast-break dunk himself rather than pass ahead to wide-open Mays, the kind of play Calipari won't accept.
"It's not fun when you're being told in an aggressive way," Calipari said. "But we don't have time here. This isn't for funsies."
It definitely won't be for funsies when the Cats get back down to business at a 6:30 a.m. defensive practice on Thursday morning. There is a lot of work ahead, but Calipari can visualize a trajectory for his team that will have them contending for another title.
"Hopefully in a month you'll watch us and say, man, they really got better," Calipari said. "And in another month you say, man, they've got a chance. And in another month, you say man, they're right there. That's our hope."