Barclays Center Classic - Kentucky v Maryland

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.

Gavitt Games schedule released, but not much to get excited about

NCAA Men's Final Four - National Championship - Villanova v North Carolina
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The schedule for the 2016 Gavitt Tipoff  Games were announced on Tuesday afternoon.

The Gavitt Games are an event that we be held annually featuring eight made-for-TV matchup between Big East programs and Big Ten programs. It’s similar to the ACC-Big Ten Challenge, only it takes place during the first week of the regular season.

Last year’s Games were highlighted by a matchup between Maryland and Georgetown, a local rivalry that hadn’t been played in three decades. And while those two programs will face-off once again this season, the level of intrigue in this year’s event is not quite what it was last year.

The marquee matchup will probably be reigning champs Villanova, who should be a top five team in the preseason, playing at Purdue, who should once again be competitive in the Big Ten. And so long as Nigel Hayes returns to Wisconsin, the Badgers trip to Creighton should feature two NCAA tournament teams. There will be some hype given the rivalry between Maryland and Georgetown, but both of those teams are on a downward trend.

And beyond that?

Yuck. Rutgers vs. DePaul and St. John’s vs. Minnesota are … well, let’s just say you won’t be taking time out of your week to tune in.

Here’s the full schedule:

Monday, Nov. 14th:

Villanova at Purdue

Tuesday, Nov. 15th:

Maryland at Georgetown
Wisconsin at Creighton

Wednesday, Nov. 16th:

Northwestern at Butler

Thursday, Nov. 17th:

Seton Hall at Iowa
Providence at Ohio State
Rutgers at DePaul

Friday, Nov. 18th:

St. John’s at Minnesota

Looking Forward: Which programs are on the rise as we head into 2016-17?

FILE - In this Thursday, Feb. 4, 2016, file photo, Wisconsin's Vitto Brown, left, and Bronson Koening laugh during the final seconds of an NCAA college basketball game against Ohio State in Madison, Wis. Wisconsin won, 79-68. Though he moved on to the NBA long ago, March Madness is also Steph Curry's world now. (AP Photo/Andy Manis, File)
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The NBA Draft’s Early Entry Deadline has come and gone. Just about every elite recruit has decided where they will be playing their college ball next season. The coaching carousel, which ended up spinning a bit faster than initially expected, has come to a close for all of the major programs. 

In other words, by now, we have a pretty good feel for what college basketball is going to look like during the 2016-17 season. With that in mind, let’s take a look at some programs on the rise heading into next season.

Virginia Tech: Buzz Williams’ second season in Blacksburg proved to be more successful than many expected, as the Hokies won ten ACC games (20 overall) and played in the Postseason NIT. What can they do for an encore? In all honesty the pieces needed for the program’s first NCAA tournament appearance since 2007 are in place, with six of their top seven scorers from a season ago due to return led by forward Zach LeDay and guard Seth Allen. Expecting the Hokies to contend for the ACC title may be a bit much, but it’s fair to expect them to work their way into the Top 25 and the NCAA tournament in 2016-17.

Creighton: The Bluejays, picked to finish eighth in the Big East preseason poll, nearly played its way onto the NCAA tournament bubble thanks to a much-improved big man in Geoffrey Groselle, transfer Maurice Watson Jr. and Cole Huff, and guard Isaiah Zierden. Groselle’s gone, but given the combination of returnees and the addition of former Kansas State guard Marcus Foster the Bluejays could be in line for another leap forward. The key for Greg McDermott’s team will be the return of Watson, who’s going through the NBA Draft evaluation process.

Wisconsin: At one point last season the Badgers were 9-9 overall and 1-4 in Big Ten play, with it appearing highly unlikely that Greg Gard would have his interim tag removed. But Gard’s team turned things around, winning 22 games and reaching the Sweet 16. Provided Nigel Hayes, who’s currently going through the NBA Draft evaluation process, returns to school the Badgers will be on the short list of Big Ten title contenders. Bronson Koenig and Ethan Happ lead four other starters who will be back, and Andy Van Vliet (who the NCAA sidelined for last season) will help in the front court as well.

USC: The Trojans’ progression was a year ahead of schedule, as after producing consecutive 12-win seasons they earned an NCAA tournament berth in Andy Enfield’s third season at the helm. USC does have some questions in the form of guard Julian Jacobs and forward Nikola Jovanovic both going through the NBA Draft process, but if both return the Trojans will be a contender in the Pac-12. Jordan McLaughlin, Bennie Boatwright and Chimezie Metu are among the returnees for a team that could return five of its six double-digit scorers — Katin Reinhardt being the lone departure — from last season.

UCLA guard Bryce Alford, center, attempts to move the ball past Kentucky guard Charles Matthews, right, as Jamal Murray, left, helps defend during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game in Los Angeles, Thursday, Dec. 3, 2015. (AP Photo/Kelvin Kuo)
UCLA guard Bryce Alford (AP Photo/Kelvin Kuo)

UCLA: Staying in Los Angeles, this is a big year coming up for Steve Alford. The Bruins were a major disappointment last season, but the combination of some key returnees and a recruiting class led by Lonzo Ball and T.J. Leaf should propel UCLA back into the Pac-12 and national conversations. Ball should be handed the keys to the show from the start given his abilities at the point, which should result in plentiful scoring opportunities for the likes of Bryce Alford, Isaac Hamilton and Thomas Welsh. How good this team can be will depend on two things: how well the pieces mesh, and an improved commitment on the defensive end.

Gonzaga: The Bulldogs reached the Sweet 16 last season, but the way in which they got there wasn’t what we’ve grown accustomed to with regards to Mark Few’s program as they needed the WCC automatic bid to ensure a spot in the field. Even with the departures of Kyle Wiltjer and Domantas Sabonis, Gonzaga has the tools needed to be better in 2016-17, as a backcourt that made strides as the season progressed will be a year older with Josh Perkins and Silas Melson leading the way. Also, Przemek Karnowski will be back on the court after missing last season with a back injury.

Florida State: Leonard Hamilton received some good news, as both Dwayne Bacon and Xavier Rathan-Mayes decided to return after briefly flirting with the NBA Draft. They’ll be asked to lead the way for a team that adds a solid recruiting class led by McDonald’s All-American Jonathan Isaac, and putting points on the board won’t be much of an issue. If they can get back to defending at the level we’ve come to expect from Hamilton-coached teams, Florida State can make their first NCAA tournament appearance since 2012.

Rhode Island: Dan Hurley’s Rams began the 2015-16 season viewed as a team that could contend in the Atlantic 10. Then the injury bug hit, with E.C. Matthews being lost to a torn ACL and multiple key contributors (including Hassan Martin) missing time throughout the course of the year. URI’s healthy again, and with Four McGlynn being the lone major contributor out of eligibility 2016-17 should see the Rams rebound and make a run at the Atlantic 10 title.

Michigan’s Spike Albrecht to finish his career at rival Big Ten program

Michigan guard Spike Albrecht (2) makes a layup between Northern Michigan forward Brett Branstrom, top left, and center Vejas Grazulis (52) in the second half of an NCAA college basketball game at Crisler Center in Ann Arbor, Mich., Friday, Nov. 13, 2015. Michigan won 70-44. (AP Photo/Tony Ding)
(AP Photo/Tony Ding)
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Spike Albrecht’s career isn’t over, as the former Michigan point guard and graduate transfer has committed to play his final season for Big Ten rival Purdue.

“I’ll be playing my 5th year for Purdue University,” Albrecht tweeted on Tuesday morning. “Boiler Up.”

Albrecht’s career has been fascinating to follow. A very lightly recruited high schooler, Albrecht picked Michigan over Appalachian State, playing very limited minutes behind National Player of the Year Trey Burke before popping off for 17 points in the first half of the national title game that season (and launching the greatest heat check in the history of heat checks). He would play a bigger role as a sophomore before averaging 7.5 points and 3.9 assists in 32 minutes as a junior in 2014-15.

But as a senior, Albrecht cut his season short after just a couple of games due to a degenerative issue in his hips. He had surgery on both hips prior to last season and initially announced that his career was over. That changed, but Michigan’s scholarship situation didn’t: They had already recruited someone to take his scholarship after his graduation, so Albrecht was forced to transfer.

Purdue is a good fit for him. He’ll provide veteran leadership on a team with just one other senior on the roster — redshirt junior Basil Smotherman — and he’ll help anchor the point guard spot currently held by junior P.J. Thompson.

Villanova’s Jenkins to return for senior season

Villanova forward Kris Jenkins (2) reacts to play against North Carolina during the second half of the NCAA Final Four tournament college basketball championship game Monday, April 4, 2016, in Houston. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)
AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall
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After briefly taking part in the NBA Draft evaluation process, Villanova forward Kris Jenkins announced Monday night that he’s decided to withdraw and return to school for his senior year. Jenkins, whose three-pointer as time expired gave the Wildcats the win over North Carolina in the national title game, announced the news via Twitter.

2015-16 was a breakout season for Jenkins, who moved into the starting lineup and averaged 13.6 points, 3.9 rebounds and 2.2 assists per game. The 6-foot-6 forward shot 45.9 percent from the field and 38.6 percent from beyond the arc, and with starters Ryan Arcidiacono and Daniel Ochefu graduating he’ll have even more opportunities to produce next season.

Jenkins’ decision to return leaves wing Josh Hart as the lone Wildcats going through the early entry process at this time. Hart was a first team All-Big East selection as a junior, and his return would be the final piece to the puzzle for a team that many expect to be a national title contender in 2016-17.

Jenkins and Hart wouldn’t be the only returnees who had a part in the national title run, with guards Jalen Brunson and Phil Booth, wing Mikal Bridges and forward Darryl Reynolds back as well. To that group Villanova adds Fordham transfer Eric Paschall and a recruiting class anchored by Omari Spellman and Dylan Painter with Donte DiVincenzo and Tim Delaney available after being hampered by injuries last season.

Delaney missed all of last year after undergoing surgical procedures on his hips, and DiVincenzo played a total of 74 minutes over the first nine games before having to sit due to a broken foot.