Perhaps the one person not surprised by his performance tonight was Jarrod Polson. After all, the former walk-on, a junior from
Nickelsville Nicholasville, Kentucky, has only been practicing against the likes of Brandon Knight, Doron Lamb and Marquis Teague for 2 years now. For about a year, Polson has been quietly waiting for an opportunity– a moment– a chance. Polson has quietly let on to the fact that he doesn’t just want to be the player who the student section yells “SHOOOOOOOOOOT!” at every time he comes on the floor at the end of games. Polson has never wanted to be that player. He has never seen himself as simply fulfilling the typical walk-on role. A guy who had a chance coming out of high school to play for some smaller Division I schools such as Liberty, chose the prolific program 15 miles down the road that he dreamt of as a young kid. He was given walk-on status initially, but never seemed fully satisfied with the role. For two years, by all accounts, he showed up and worked hard at every single practice– knowing he was behind McDonald’s All-Americans and future NBA stars. Jarrod Polson wasn’t a name in the long list of Calipari’s great point guards. And tonight won’t change that, either. But stories like this don’t always come along, and when they do, they are worth shedding some light on.
Jarrod Polson was the hero for this Kentucky team tonight. People were not yelling “SHOOOOOOOT!” at their television screens tonight because he was trying to dribble out the clock in an already-decided game. People were yelling, “Put Polson back in the game!” when he was given a quick break toward the end of the game, with the result still very much on the line. On a night when Kentucky’s starting point guard, a flu-ridden Ryan Harrow, was essentially a non-factor– and back-up Archie Goodwin looked very much the part of a nervous freshman with the ball in his hands– junior Jarrod Polson stepped up. And boy did he step up in a big way.
Polson entered the game stunningly early and pretty much stayed in for the majority of the first half. When the game started to get away from Kentucky a bit in the 2nd half behind a 15-0 run from Maryland (more on that later), Polson re-entered the game and made multiple game-changing plays for Kentucky. In one of the key plays of the game, clinging to a 2-point lead, Kentucky missed a free throw and Polson scrapped to pry the ball loose from a Maryland player. Polson went on to drive to the basket, finishing an improbable lay-up in traffic to extend the lead to 4 points. Though the cushion was small, it proved to be important in the way the last few minutes played out. Maryland had to play from behind and trade fouls/free throws for baskets down the stretch.
Every great story needs a great ending. And tonight’s story had just that. As if to put the cherry on top of the Jarrod Polson cake, Polson was the Kentucky player fouled and sent to the line to ice the victory. With a two point lead, Polson calmly stepped up and sunk both free throws. Kentucky victory. Jarrod Polson hero.
Polson may not play as significant of a role from here on out for this Kentucky team, but for at least one night– the headlines all belong to Jarrod Polson. Whether it was the flu-like symptoms or some kinks to be worked out before flourishing into a typical Calipari point guard, Ryan Harrow isn’t quite where he needs to be. Polson might get a few more opportunities in the meantime.
For a guy who has had 7 points in his Kentucky career thus far, his 10-point performance and victory-clenching plays tonight will find their place among some of the memorable Kentucky basketball moments. Jarrod Polson, ladies and gentleman. Jarrod Polson. “Obviously, I’m not one of the most talented guys out there on the court. I know I have to do a lot of different things.”
“I like my team. It was good for us to be in this type of atmosphere. We’re still young. We didn’t rebound, but we learned.”
–By far the most maddening statistic of the night had to be the rebounding margin. If you had taken a drink for every time Maryland got an offensive rebound, you and Drew Franklin would probably have a lot in common right now. Maryland out-rebounded Kentucky 54-38, including 28 offensive rebounds. Maryland had 75 shots on the game compared to 56 for Kentucky. When a stat sheet reads that way after a game, you feel a bit fortunate to come out on the winning side of the score.
— Kentucky simply couldn’t keep their hands on the ball under the basket on the defensive end, allowing a (for the most part) poor-shooting Maryland team stay in the game by keeping offensive possessions alive. Even with the height advantage, especially with big guys like Nerlens Noel, Willie Cauley-Stein and Alex Poythress on the floor, Kentucky continually left fans and John Calipari scratching their heads (or screaming).
— “They set an NCAA record for offensive rebounds,” Calipari joked after the game. “Archie Goodwin had two rebounds. You gotta be kidding me. The team with 7-footers, five guys that can jump above the square, should not give up 30 offensive rebounds.” When the players in the post-game press conference were asked what Calipari will have them working on the most at the next practice, they all responded quickly with “rebounding.” Calipari nodded. (I’m nodding too, are you?)
— Calipari had nothing but good things to say about Jarrod Polson. “I’m proud of him. He comes to practice every day and works hard.” Even though starting point guard Ryan Harrow was virtually ineffective in only 10 minutes of play (keep in mind, he missed practice this week due to the flu), Calipari hasn’t lost faith in his point guard. “Ryan has all my confidence.” Calipari seemed to chalk some of the bad night up to the flu. Dreams of a ‘Ryan Harrow flu-game’ like Michael Jordan’s flu-game didn’t quite come true.
— The game got off to a rather slow start with the referees calling the game extremely tight. Kentucky had 4 players in foul trouble early, including Alex Poythress, Archie Goodwin and Nerlens Noel. Other than some tough drives that drew Maryland fouls by Archie Goodwin, the offense struggled to find a rhythm early on. The tide began to really turn when Kentucky went on a run sparked by none other than…Jarrod Polson. Polson hit a jumper. Willie Cauley-Stein had an absolutely phenomenal block on the defensive end, and then Kyle Wiltjer buried a three on the ensuing offensive possession.
— Kentucky rode the solid play of Jarrod Polson and the shooting hand of Kyle Wiltjer to a 49-36 halftime lead. The 49 points were impressive for 20 minutes of play. Maryland was unable to capitalize on a number of offensive rebounds though, allowing the deficiency to slide for the Cats in the first half.
— Early in the second half, Maryland’s poor offensive display caught fire and the Terps went on a 15-0 run to tie the game. The run put the Cats on their heels and a few important things came to fruition with this team: Julius Mays is the vocal leader. When Maryland was in the midst of their big run, the guy who was pulling his teammates’ jerseys, gathering them together and getting in their faces was Julius Mays (who by the way, looked dead on Nelly with the band-aid). The veteran, who had a solid night himself (7 points in 30 minutes of play), showed one of the reasons why Calipari was happy to bring him on this team. He has a presence with these younger guys, and he showed leadership when Kentucky’s backs were against the wall. Another important realization was that Kyle Wiltjer was the “go-to” guy when Kentucky was desperate for a basket after being tied, and then falling behind. Multiple times during that stretch, when Kentucky came down the court, the ball was put in Wiltjer’s hands to make a play. To Wiltjer’s credit, he answered with a couple of huge baskets– including a 3-pointer to disrupt the big run. Wiltjer led the team in scoring with 19 points, including 4-6 shooting from behind the arc (including one 3-pointer in which Wiltjer had already turned around to go defend before it even went through the net. When you know, you know).
— Alex Poythress looked uncomfortable almost all night long. He didn’t seem confident with the ball in his hands on the perimeter a number of times, passing the ball on without looking to make plays for himself. Poythress came alive twice, once before the halftime break and once right after. Poythress followed a miss with a tremendous put-back dunk near the end of the first half. The ball was put into his hands (I don’t think that was an accident on Cal’s part) to make a play on the first offensive possession of the second half, and Poythress once again delivered. Poythress finished with 8 points, but only attempted 4 shots. Though all Calipari teams have great balance, Poythress will likely need to find a way to assert himself more offensively if this team is to compete at the highest level. Calipari wasn’t particularly pleased with Poythress’ rebounding. Poythress finished with 7, but Calipari said he “should have had 12. We’ve got guys who don’t think it’s their responsibility.”
— When Alex Poythress gets comfortable…watch out. Will it be next week against Duke, or a month from now? It’s hard to say, but Poythress wasn’t in the game during the final stretch. For a guy who many believe could be, and might one day be the best player on this team, that’s a bit of a surprise.
— It’s hard to completely judge Ryan Harrow off of this game. It’s hard to decipher how much was illness and how much was him not playing well. Unlike in years past when Calipari played his struggling young point guards, Harrow was not on the floor during the crucial stretches in the game. Instead, Calipari turned to Archie Goodwin and then Jarrod Polson. Again, that could be due to illness and Calipari still seems to speak confidently about Harrow. Hopefully Harrow will feel 100% against Duke.
— Nerlens Noel only had 4 points, but had a strong game on the defensive end. Noel challenged a number of shots and was extremely active defensively. He finished with 3 blocks, but his presence is extremely noticeable on nearly every single defensive possession. Much like the rest of his teammates tonight, his rebounding left a bit to be desired at times–though he finished with 9. Fellow big-man Willie Cauley-Stein had an active night on both ends of the court as well, finishing with a well-rounded 8 points, 6 rebounds and 4 blocks in 28 minutes. Cauley-Stein looked great on a few of his blocks and ran the court well for a few easy finishes. This much is clear: Cauley-Stein is not a starter (at least not right now). But he will play “starter minutes.”
— Archie Goodwin finished the game with 16 points in 37 minutes of action. In a huge bright spot, Goodwin was 9-11 from the free throw line. That stat is especially good because it seems that Goodwin is going to make a living driving to the basket in traffic, often times drawing fouls. At times, Goodwin looked a bit out of control and his decision-making on when to take it himself and when to drop it off to a teammate still needs some fine-tuning. With that said, Goodwin is explosive and he is clearly a fearless playmaker.
— Once again, in the end…the story line begins and ends with Jarrod Polson. Take a moment to enjoy this great picture sent to Polson on Twitter by his sister. The picture below is apparently Polson’s parents watching the game…
– Also, a huge congratulations to the UK Women’s soccer team for their 1-0 OT victory in the opening round of the NCAA Tournament tonight. Coach Lipsitz is the man, and Kentucky will live to see another day.