Jarrod Polson, victory formations, and one walk-on’s unforgettable night

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NEW YORK – Anyone who watches football at any level knows what the ‘Victory Formation’ is.

When the game is out of reach and the final minutes and seconds simply need to be bled off the clock, the winning team surrounds the quarterback while sticking one player — a safety valve, if you will — a good ten or twelve yards behind the line of scrimmage, immediately kneeling the ball when it is snapped. When you see that formation, it’s a sign: the clock may still be ticking, but the fat lady’s vocal chords are all warmed up and ready to go and the traffic jam outside the stadium is already going to cost you 45 minutes of travel time.

College basketball has its own version of the ‘Victory Formation’; the walk-ons. When a game is all-but over, when one team is up 20 with a minute and a half left, the winning coach will empty his bench, giving his walk-ons — the guys that pay their own way to school to simply for the right to get worked over every day in practice by the scholarship players — a chance to hoist a few shots in front of their fans. These guys usually end up being some of the most popular players on the team, with students sections across the country chanting their name, calling for the signal that the win is in the books.

Jarrod Polson was that guy for Kentucky the last two seasons. The Nicholasville, KY, native only got a walk-on offer from the Wildcats because Elisha Justice opted to go to Louisville. He accepted because, well, what do you really expect a Kentucky kid to do when his other offer was for an NAIA school in Ohio? And while Polson has since earned his way into one of Coach Cal’s leftover scholarships, the junior point guard entered the 2012-2013 season having played 28 games and a grand total of 62 minutes, and not a meaningful minute among them.

But the story changed on Friday night at the Barclays Center.

The ‘Victory Formation’ became the difference-maker.

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“Absolutely zero went into thinking about him before the game,” Maryland head coach Mark Turgeon said after his Terrapins suffered a 72-69 defeat at the hands of the Wildcats. “When he subbed a the scorer’s table, I said, ‘Who is that?'”

That’s how well-known Polson was entering Friday night. The opposing head coach didn’t even bother including him on the scouting report, which is more telling than you probably realize because head coaches are usually exhaustively thorough when it comes to putting together their scouting reports.

Why?

Because they don’t want to run into a situation where they get surprised by someone coming off the bench. They don’t want to lose a game because they glossed over the 11th man or because a player they didn’t realize was a shooter hit four threes. The thinking goes, ‘you can never be too prepared’, and on Friday, Maryland wasn’t prepared.

Polson’s stat-line is decent enough — 10 points on 4-for-5 shooting from the floor, three assists to no turnovers and a pair of free throws in 22 minutes. But those numbers don’t begin to quantify the impact that the former walk-on had on the outcome of the game. He stabilized Kentucky at the point guard spot, as Ryan Harrow was battling the flu and Julius Mays was dealing with a leg injury he suffered this week, getting the team into their sets and protecting the ball against the Maryland pressure.

More importantly, however, he came in and provided Kentucky with a measure of hustle and grit. He tipped in a missed layup by Nerlens Noel with five minutes left to give Kentucky a 63-62 lead. A little more than a minute later, he ripped a rebound away from Pe’Shon Howard and finished a reverse layup around Charles Mitchell the put Kentucky up 67-63. And with Kentucky up just 70-69 with eight seconds left after yet another offensive rebound for Maryland (they finished with 28) led to a layup from Alex Len, Polson stepped to the line and calmly sunk two free throws to put the Wildcats up three and force Howard to hunt for a three on the final possession of the game; Howard never ended up getting a shot off.

All this came in front of a packed house at the Barclays Center.

In a game played on ESPN.

On College Hoops’ opening night.

In front of one of the wildest atmospheres you’ll see in a November college basketball game.

“He was the whole key to the game,” Turgeon said. “He gave them confidence.”

“I’ll be honest, I was nervous,” Polson said in his first-ever postgame press conference. “At the same time it was good to get out there and play. It was definitely a lot of fun for me tonight.”

I bet it was.

This story, at face value, is terrific and the kind of thing a movie script can be based on. Polson, a former walk-on, takes center-stage for a team and a program known for churning out lottery picks, particularly at his position. A dream come true, right? Someone get Disney on the phone.

But the story carries with it so much more significance. Kentucky is not deep in their back court. At all. It’s Harrow, and out-of-position Mays and Archie Goodwin, and Polson. And what Polson proved tonight was that if he gets called upon, be it because Harrow is in foul trouble or injured or simply playing poorly, he’s more than capable of stepping in and running this team.

He proved to everyone that Kentucky can win when he’s running the show. He made the most of his opportunity, and he likely played his way into the Kentucky rotation. I doubt Cal will hesitate to call on Polson when he’s needed.

“He was ready for his opportunity, and as a coach, there is nothing that makes me happier,” Calipari said after the game. “The whole team was hugging him in there. I’m proud of Jarrod. Jarrod’s someone who comes every day and does the thing that he needs to do. He doesn’t try to do more and that’s what he did tonight. He was just outstanding.”

I doubt there will be anyone that neglects to include him on the scouting report again this season. And that, in-and-of-itself, is an accomplishment.

The ‘Victory Formation’ is now honest-to-god member of Kentucky’s rotation.

Rob Dauster is the editor of the college basketball website Ballin’ is a Habit. You can find him on twitter @robdauster.

Bubble Banter: Sunday Funday on the bubble

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As we will do every day throughout the rest of the season, here is a look at how college basketball’s bubble teams fared on Sunday.

It’s worth reminding you here that the way winning are labeled have changed this season. Instead of looking at all top 50 wins equally, the selection committee will be using criteria that breaks wins down into four quadrants, using the RPI:

  • Quadrant 1: Home vs. 1-30, Neutral vs. 1-50, Road vs. 1-75
  • Quadrant 2: Home vs. 31-75, Neutral vs. 51-100, Road vs. 76-135
  • Quadrant 3: Home vs. 76-160, Neutral vs. 101-200, Road vs. 136-240
  • Quadrant 4: Home vs. 161 plus, Neutral vs. 201 plus, Road vs. 240 plus

The latest NBC Sports Bracketology can be found here.

YET TO PLAY

TEMPLE
UCLA
PENN STATE
NEBRASKA
N.C. STATE

Georgia’s Mark Fox ‘disgusted’ by investigation into college basketball

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Georgia head coach Mark Fox did not hold back when asked about the FBI investigation into corruption in college basketball, calling is “disgusting” and pleading with coaches and the institutions that employ them to do right.

“It starts with our coaches, and then you ask how the NCAA has handled it,” Fox said. “The NCAA is made up of member institutions. How are the institutions handling it? That’d be my first question. How are they handling it? Putting their head in the sand and looking the other way? I’m past anger, sadness. It’s just disgusting, and we’re really hurting the game, and the game has been so good to everybody.”

Fox is in a difficult position. He’s regarded as one of the nicer coaches in the business and is considered to be ‘clean’. He team also appears headed for another NIT, which could end up costing him his job.

“We’ve had some situations where we didn’t get players because of that reason, and other teams have, too,” Fox said.

“I’m disgusted,” he added. “I’m disgusted with how people have treated our game. It’s absolutely disgusting.”

Cuonzo Martin: ‘No timetable’ for a Michael Porter Jr. return

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There still is not clarity on whether or not Missouri freshman Michael Porter Jr. will return to the court this season.

On Saturday, he participated in Missouri’s shootaround at Kentucky but did not run through warmups and did not play in the game.

“I don’t have a timeline,” Missouri head coach Cuonzo Martin said after Saturday’s 87-66 loss. “He wants to play.”

“We have to make sure he’s ready to go.”

Porter has only had one full practice since he underwent surgery on his back in November, and that came on Friday. A source confirmed to NBC Sports that Porter was, in fact, cleared for full contact on Thursday afternoon after a visit with a doctor.

Porter is expected to continue practicing with the team. He told reporters earlier this month that he would like to get a few games prior to the start of tournament play if he happens to take part in any games.

Kentucky, Duke, Arizona comment on player eligibility amidst FBI scandal

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On Saturday night, Kentucky won their third straight game over an opponent that will be in next month’s NCAA tournament. They were led by freshman Kevin Knox, who finished with 21 points just 36 hours after his name appeared in a report by Yahoo Sports in connection with a runner that was tied to disgraced NBA agent Andy Miller.

“I’m not here to talk about that,” Knox said in response to questions regarding the runner, Christian Dawkins, or the story that Yahoo published.

“That was all the university dealing with it,” Kentucky head coach John Calipari said, adding that he did not discuss the matter with Knox. “I wasn’t involved in any way. But I felt good about it.”

“I was sure I would be able to play this whole week,” Knox told reporters. “I wasn’t really focused on none of that. I let Kentucky handle it.

“I just focused on me, focused on my game, and let them handle it. I slept well at night knowing I was going to be able to play.”

Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski went a step further, detailing precisely how he found out about the report and how Wendell Carter’s parents were involved. Carter’s mother called him while he was walking his dog and told him what was in the story. According to Coach K, Wendell’s parents went to break bread with Dawkins, but Wendell’s father did not like him and left immediately while Wendell’s mother stayed to be polite. She said she did not have anything to eat.

“It wasn’t a distraction because I know I didn’t do anything wrong,” Carter told reporters after going for 16 points, 10 boards, four steals, four assists and two blocks in a win over Syracuse. “My family didn’t do anything wrong. No one around me did anything wrong. I knew I was going to play. Once I got out on the court, it was all good. It felt good.”

“We are very comfortable with where we are on this,” Coach K said. “We don’t feel like we are taking any chances with this. We very confident about this particular thing.”

Alabama told ESPN that any connection that Collin Sexton had to Dawkins or the Yahoo story was dealt with during his one-game suspension at the start of the season.

“We reviewed i, and after we reviewed it, we made the decision that Collin was going to be available for us,” Alabama coach Avery Johnson said. “That’s the extent of it.”

Meanwhile, Arizona lost at Oregon after Sean Miller was replaced by Lorenzo Romar as head coach for the night. Romar offered no answers as to whether or not Miller, who was reportedly caught on a fire tap talking about a $100,000 payment to Deandre Ayton, will return to the program anytime soon because, as he put it, “I don’t know.” Romar was unable to even answer if he would be coaching practice on Sunday.

Troubled No. 14 Arizona loses 98-93 to Oregon

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EUGENE, Ore. — No. 14 Arizona played without coach Sean Miller and lost 98-93 to Oregon in overtime at the end of a difficult Saturday for the troubled Wildcats program.

Miller sat out a day after ESPN reported he was heard on an FBI wiretap discussing a $100,000 payment to current Wildcats freshman Deandre Ayton. The Wildcats also were without guard Allonzo Trier, who tested positive for the same banned substance that cost him 19 games last season.

“I believe it is in the best interest of our team that I not coach the game tonight,” Miller said in a statement. “I continue to fully support the university’s efforts to fully investigate this matter and am confident that I will be vindicated.”

The school did not specify why Miller didn’t coach against Oregon or if he will sit out any other games.

Ayton had 28 points and 16 rebounds for Arizona (22-7, 12-4 Pac-12), and Rawle Alkins added 24 points.

Oregon (19-10, 9-7) used a stellar performance at the line and a balanced attack to pick up its second straight win. Elijah Brown scored 22 of his season-high 30 points after halftime. MiKyle McIntosh added 20 points, including a key 3-pointer with 1:02 left.

Brown made 15 of 17 free-throw attempts as the Ducks connected on 20 of 24 foul shots overall. The work at the line helped them over a 58.6 shooting percentage and a 35-30 rebounding edge for the Wildcats.

Arizona also committed 17 turnovers.

Dylan Smith’s 3-pointer for the Wildcats tied it at 83 with 22 seconds left. Oregon’s Payton Pritchard missed a driving layup with 2 seconds remaining, sending the game into overtime.

BIG PICTURE

Arizona’s immediate future isn’t clear beyond its last two games of the regular season at McKale Center. The Wildcats can clinch a share of the Pac-12 title with one more win.

Oregon push for relevance in the postseason discussion got a boost by beating the Wildcats, though the Ducks’ only route to NCAA Tournament may rest with winning the conference tournament in Las Vegas next month. Oregon closes on the road against the Washington schools.