There is a reason Kentucky pays John Calipari as much as they do. On top of recruiting and player development, proper game management is a huge piece of every team's success. Dictating the flow of the game, spotting weaknesses in other team's game plans, and playing (and benching) the right players at the right times can determine if a game is won or lost. Some lineups are more obvious than others; usually the best five players start and close games. But getting the most out of all of our rotations is much more complicated and just as important.
To begin, here is our first five on the court.
Sahvir Wheeler - I can guarantee anyone reading this that Wheeler will be our starting point guard. He has led all Power 5 conference players in assists in the previous two seasons and had the best assist-to-turnover ratio in the SEC last season. His height and shooting are valid concerns that may keep him out of other lineups, but for now, the senior is PG1.
Cason Wallace - I do not care that we have yet to see him play a game of Division I College Basketball. I have seen enough to know that he will be our best one-and-done freshman since Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. His elite defense and shot creation make him a prime candidate for the second best player on this year's team.
Antonio Reeves - Reeves led the Cats in scoring during their four game exhibition round robin in the Bahamas. I would not be surprised if Reeves led the Cats during their actual 40 game season as well.
Jacob Toppin - We have heard all off-season about the leaps Toppin has made from year three going into year four of his college career. We saw flashes of that in the Bahamas, specifically a 5/6 three point shooting performance against Carleton University. Even without his shooting, Toppin's veteranship and leadership provides Kentucky their best option at the 4 position at the moment.
Oscar Tshiebwe - 17.4 points per game. 15.2 rebounds per game. National Player of the Year. Enough Said.
Whether it be getting in the midst of a shootout or trying to come back from a deficit, there are many scenarios where getting it going from deep is essential to winning the game. Here is our lineup with our best three point shooting in every position.
Cason Wallace - While Wallace has not proven that he will be a high level shooter at the next level, Wheeler has already proven that he won't be. Wallace shot a very impressive 6/15 (40%) from behind the arc during the Bahamas trip, while Wheeler didn't have a make in 9 attempts.
CJ Fredrick - Fredrick only had one make on five attempts in the Bahamas. However, he has already established that he is one of the best catch-and-shoot players in all of College Basketball, as he shot 47% and 46% in his two seasons playing for Iowa.
Antonio Reeves - Reeves shot 14/27 (51.9%) from three in the Bahamas. Not one of those numbers are typos.
Jacob Toppin - Yes, the 5/6 three point shooting game against Carleton was very impressive, but take out that outlier, and Toppin still shot 3/9 from deep in the other three Bahamas games. One make on three attempts per game as a floor is great shooting production from the four spot.
Daimion Collins - Collins did not have success from deep in the Bahamas, but did from the mid-range and displayed a much improved looking jumper. Back it up a few feet and Collins presents the most potential for a three point shooter as our center.
On the other side of the ball, there are many occasions where getting a stop on the defensive end is just as important as putting up points. Here is our lineup when we want our best defensive players on the floor.
Cason Wallace - Once again, I am deferring away from our PG1 in Wheeler. While he is most certainly not a bad defender, Cason's height and physicality presents a much tougher defensive matchup at the point guard position.
Adou Thiero - I could easily put CJ Fredrick here as he defended very well in the Bahamas and during his time at Iowa. However, once again I default to increased height and length on the perimeter. Thiero is listed at 6'6", looks 6'7", and very well may still be growing.
Chris Livingston - Livingston's combination of size at 6'6" 220 lbs and athleticism allows him to do something that no one else on this roster can do: have the versatility to defend everywhere from the 1 to the 4 position.
Lance Ware - Ware is on this roster for three reasons: rebounding, defense and intensity. All of which are key qualities for this particular lineup.
Oscar Tshiewbe - While Oscar doesn't have the height to be an elite rim protector, he is still a high level defensive anchor in the middle. Rebounding an opponent's miss is also a huge part of getting a stop, and no one in the country is better at that than Oscar.
If we are playing a smaller and quicker team, or we just want to maximize our spacing on the offensive end, a "four out" or "four guard" lineup is the way to go.
Sahvir Wheeler - Wheeler is most effective when the paint is open, we can run in transition, and he has knock down shooters all around him. All three of those will be in effect with this "four out" lineup.
CJ Fredrick - As noted in our three point lineup, Fredrick is one of the best shooters in the country. The defense will have to be glued to him on the perimeter at all times, allowing Wheeler to have all the space he needs on the perimeter.
Antonio Reeves - Not only is Reeves an elite shooter, but he has also demonstrated that he can be a secondary ball handler, a trait that will be key for this team when looking to push the pace and get out in transition.
Chris Livingston - Livingston is the perfect modern "stretch four". He has the guard skills to play out on the perimeter and space the floor, while also having the size and strength to rebound and defend the 4 position.
Oscar Tshiebwe - Similar to Wheeler, Tshiebwe is most effective when the paint is clear. He will have all the space he needs to post up with his back to the basket, and also get a handful of easy looks in the dunker's spot off of Wheeler's drives.
And finally, here are the last five players on the floor to close out the game and give Kentucky the win.
Cason Wallace - For complete transparency, I am pretty confident that Wheeler will be our point guard to close out games. This is what I would do, not necessarily what I think John Calipari will do. I had previously mentioned that Wheeler is most effective when he gets to run out in transition, but that is quite the opposite of how a game goes in the final few minutes. The ball slows down, almost every offensive set comes in the halfcourt, and point guards carry the responsibility of not only creating a shot for others, but also being able to create one for themselves. Give me Cason Wallace.
CJ Fredrick - Fredrick's high shooting percentage from all levels gives you the confidence to draw up a look for him late. Pair that with his defense, and Fredrick is a player that will make winning plays down the stretch.
Antonio Reeves - One of Kentucky's biggest problems last year was the lack of a perimeter player that can create a shot for themselves late in games. Antonio Reeves is the solution to that problem.
Jacob Toppin - Having your vocal leader on the floor during the last minutes of the game is almost mandatory. Toppin's leadership and energy will be key down the stretch.
Oscar Tshiebwe - Have I mentioned that Oscar Tshiebwe was the National Player of the Year?
While it is a difficult job, John Calipari sure has a fun one. While I do have my favorite lineups, there aren't too many "bad" ones. Having the luxury to mix-and-match this talented, versatile, and complimentary group of players to form unique rotations is one of the reasons Kentucky is going to win a lot of basketball games this season.