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UCLA Basketball: Where Did The Hockey-Line Rotation Come From?

Kentucky's coach John Calipari put platooning in the news again. Our own Steve Alford has been using a hockey-line substitution for two seasons now. How did the idea develop in basketball?

Richard Mackson-USA TODAY Sports

The platoon system in college basketball has been big news thanks to Kentucky's coach John Calipari. Last year's exodus to the NBA didn't happen, and now he has nine MickyD's on his team, and is trying to keep everyone happy. Although he has to show some natty's for his efforts, more importantly, he has to feed his machine with new five-star recruits every year. Sitting on the bench isn't going to attract the Jaylen Browns of the world.  So far so good, though he did go to his primary rotation in a close game against Buffalo, and probably will again if Kentucky is actually ever challenged.

Through history, UCLA has been known as the anti-platoon school. John Wooden was famous for using six, maybe seven players. He believed in conditioning at a point in time, at least before the arrival of his all-world big men, when college basketball was a walk-up game. The Bruins really took off when he adopted the full-court zone press.

Today, there's not much of 94 feet super-conditioning in evidence. VCU is perhaps the most-famous and only major example (Florida last year in spurts).  Shaka Smart is known for his "havoc" system. This year, although he's been easily exposed by good team, he's playing 11 guys over 10 mpg with 6 over 20 minutes each 927 mpg max).

I've been on a rant against Steve Alford's substitution pattern.  It's not a full platoon, but he's been employing a hockey-line substitution pattern for two seasons now. You remember last year -- Bryce and Zach coming in at the same time and often with Tony in as well. There were likely behind-the-scenes issues, but on the court, Bryce and Zach provided a spark and Tony was adequate to good.

No such luck this year. I cringe every time I see three of Welsh, Allen, Golomon and Bail on the court together.  The rotation has lasted as on as four minutes. And guess what? The plus/minus has been miserable. That stretch in the B4A against Oklahoma in the first half was a contributing factor to the loss.

BN has and will deep dive into specific Bruin rotations this year, but this article is about the evolution of the platoon system in basketball. A sixth man isn't a sixth man anymore - like Cazzie Russell l of the 1968-69 NBA Champion New York Knicks. It's more so the leader of the second shift -- with some exceptions of course (James Harden when he played for the Oklahoma Thunder).

This article from 1948 says Jack Friel introduced a full platoon system in the 1930's at Washington State. Once upon a time, there was a center jump after every basket. When that was eliminated, some teams started to fast break which required the use of reserves. Friel went hard all game, and took the concept to the extreme: substituting all five men.

This article gives credit to John McClendon who was a direct disciple of Naismith while at Kansas. McClendon implemented a fast break system at North Carolina College in the early 1940's, and that necessitated a second platoon plus intense conditioning to keep his players fresh.

The theme, in general, is that the game sped up for various reasons, and some coaches adopted a platoon system.

The NBA had additional circumstances that led to platooning.  Here are my personal observations. It's not so much about the tempo of the game (with some exceptions like Mike D'Antoni).

In the NBA, there were several factors that contributed to the omnipresent second team platoon:

  • The 82 game schedule, back-to-back game nights and two months of play-offs. There are shifts during the season, and then the platoon system fades a bit for the playoffs.
  • Expansion.
  • Hardship (high school players going straight to the NBA).
  • The ABA.
  • The me-first star system from the 70's.
  • The rise of the system coach.

The common denominator for all these factors is the dilution of talent and the onerous number of games to be played. Players became incredibly athletic but not necessarily trained in the team game. The effort can't be sustained for 40 minutes over 100+ games in the modern NBA, and coaches eventually responded with mass substitutions for long filler periods.

The substitution pattern is critical for seeding in the playoffs.  Greg Popovich does a great job, but Phil Jackson intrigues me more in that he's the coach historically most associated with full platooning -- an entire second team. Both did very well, but Phil recognized that there was so much filler time in the NBA during the season. As a fan, if you had a chance to get close up in the arena, you get the feeling from the body- language that the starters don't seem to take it seriously unless they're hunting individual stats. Until the playoffs that is, and then it is brutal for two months. Jackson put a lot of effort into the second team including in practice. They went out and held their own for 15-20 minutes, and then the starters won the game.

Conditioning is the alternative. Man, I would love to see conditioning make a comeback.